The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) will host the first in a series of virtual public stakeholder meetings at 6 p.m. Tuesday, September 27, launching a Visitor and Vehicle Use Survey to develop an access and use plan for Wharton State Forest.
At 124,350 acres, Wharton State Forest is the largest tract of land within the New Jersey State Park system, receiving more than 800,000 visitors annually. The new survey seeks input on what types of recreation the public enjoys at the forest, what areas of the forest are most important to users, and the routes they use to access those activities.
“The Murphy Administration recognizes the immense importance of Wharton State Forest to the thousands of people who visit it for everything from birding and quiet walks to scenic drives and motorized recreation,” said NJDEP Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette. “For this reason, public engagement is critical to our mission to ensure the forest is a place for everyone to enjoy. We, therefore, encourage the public and stakeholders to participate in our virtual sessions and complete the survey to ensure a diversity of viewpoints and that there is an opportunity to address any community concerns.”
The September 27 meeting will demonstrate for participants a new web-based survey and mapping tool where park users will answer questions about their favorite recreational activities in Wharton State Forest, such as fishing, hiking, boating and scenic driving, among others.
The results of the survey will be used to enhance Wharton State Forest’s map to clearly define designated safe and legal routes for vehicle usage, while protecting culturally and ecologically sensitive areas. Upon completion of the stakeholder process, these efforts to define safe and legal vehicle access routes on Wharton’s improved and unimproved roads will serve as the model for protection of other state-managed lands throughout the Pinelands.
Meetings with key stakeholder groups, including the Pinelands Commission, to provide input on this process have begun. Additional public stakeholder meetings on appropriate vehicle access will be scheduled after the NJDEP receives and reviews the result of the survey. In considering the future of Wharton State Forest, the State Park Service will develop a permit system for use of unimproved roads throughout the forest, modeled after the Department’s experience implementing the Mobile Sport Fishing Vehicle Permit system at Island Beach State Park.
Permits would be issued for vehicle use of designated safe and legal routes identified through input received from the visitor use survey and future stakeholder meetings through early 2023. The development of a permit system will enhance the State Park Police’s ability to assess vehicle use and protect sensitive resources throughout the forest. Visitors are reminded that off-road vehicle use of any kind (for example, ATVs and other motorized vehicles) is illegal on all state-owned lands. Vehicles operating in a state park, forest or wildlife management area must be street legal, registered, plated, insured and operated by a licensed driver.
Efforts to curb illegal off-road vehicle activity are well underway in the state of New Jersey. In 2021, the State Attorney General’s Office was successful in securing an increase in fines for illegal off-road vehicle use and damages. Fines now start at $250 -$500 for a first offense, $500 – $1,000 for a second offense, and a minimum of $1,000 for a third or subsequent offense. If a violation results in damage to or destruction of natural resources, an additional fine of five times the cost of the damage may be assessed. Unauthorized and illegal vehicle use resulted in the closure of several Wildlife Management Areas in May 2022; NJDEP has announced that five of those closed WMA sites are officially reopened as of September 6.
- Cedar Lake
- Greenwood Forest
- Menantico Ponds
- Wildcat Ridge
New Jersey anglers interested in participating in the upcoming Wharton State Forest meeting can register to attend at http://njparksandforests.org/wharton.