NJDEP SET TO RELEASE RESULTS OF DURING FEBRUARY 8 VIRTUAL PUBLIC MEETING
Participants are Encouraged to Pre-Register to Ensure Ample Opportunity to be Heard
(23/P6) TRENTON – Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette announced today the Department of Environmental Protection will present the results of its Wharton State Forest Visitor and Vehicle Use Survey and gather public input during the second in a series of virtual public meetings on the development of a plan for public access while protecting natural resources and ensuring public safety in the state forest. The meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 8. Pre-registration is strongly recommended due to expected high public interest.
The DEP is committed to robust public input as it develops a long-term plan that considers multiple user interests while protecting the sensitive ecosystems and cultural resources found within Wharton State Forest, the largest tract in the New Jersey State Park System. The DEP received 1,610 surveys that were submitted online, by email, and through traditional mail between Sept. 28 and Nov. 11, 2022. Participants provided information about the activities they enjoy as well as how frequently they enjoy them. After a presentation of the survey results, the public will be invited to provide comment.
“We strongly encourage everyone who enjoys Wharton State Forest to register early to attend this virtual public meeting, part of a comprehensive process the DEP is implementing to address diverse user needs in Wharton in a manner that is safe and responsible,” said Commissioner LaTourette.
“People enjoy Wharton in many different ways, whether to hike, canoe, camp, watch wildlife, fish, hunt, or to drive along the forest’s many miles of unimproved roads,” he continued. “As we continue to advance the development of this plan, we must be sure to do so responsibly so that the ecologically sensitive plants and animals found in this special place are protected for all to enjoy, as well as all of its natural beauty.”
Feedback from the meeting will be used to develop public information materials, including signage, brochures and maps that delineate safe and legal routes for motor vehicle usage to protect culturally and ecologically sensitive resources within the state forest. The DEP expects to host a third public meeting this summer, during which the public information materials will be presented. After the materials are presented, another public comment period will be held.
During the Feb. 8 virtual meeting, the DEP will also provide the public with an update on the DEP’s proposed permit system for accessing some State Park Service-owned roads. Still in the early steps of consideration, a permit system would assist in ensuring users have an adequate understanding of road conditions and vehicle requirements when traveling in remote areas of the state forest.
As part of its commitment to public engagement, and during the survey process, DEP officials met with municipal and county leadership in communities surrounding Wharton State Forest. Meetings allowed the DEP to hear directly from community leaders and afforded an opportunity to explain the intent of the survey. Municipalities that accepted meetings include Tabernacle, Washington and Woodland townships in Burlington County, and Waterford and Winslow townships in Camden County. The DEP has also met with key stakeholder groups, including the Pinelands Commission, to provide input on this process.
“We continue to take steps to implement a transparent process with park users, area residents and local governments about our intentions to better address the wide array of recreational activities which take place in Wharton State Forest,” said John Cecil, Assistant Commissioner of NJDEP’s State Parks, Forests & Historic Sites. “This next meeting provides an additional opportunity to add to the current understanding and listen to additional feedback on how the state forest is accessed and used.”
The virtual public meeting will be hosted on Microsoft Teams. It is recommended those wishing to attend download and install Microsoft Teams onto their devices (computers, laptops, phones, etc.) before the meeting date to reduce the chances of technical difficulties during the meeting.
A “test call” can be made to ensure your microphone and speakers are working ahead of the meeting by going to “settings” and then clicking “devices” in the Teams application. For more information and to download Microsoft Teams visit: https://www.microsoft.com/en-
Public comments will be limited to two minutes per person to give everyone a chance to speak. The public may also submit written comments on the State Park Service website. To register to make a public comment during the meeting or to submit a written comment visit: http://njparksandforests.org/
On Sept. 27, 2022, a virtual public meeting outlined the Visitor and Vehicle Use Survey and answered technical questions about the use of the associated mapping tools within the survey. A recording of that meeting can be viewed on the DEP’s YouTube channel here: https://youtu.be/dyT2mh_Rkto
About Wharton State Forest
At 124,350 acres, Wharton State Forest is the largest tract of land in the New Jersey State Park system and is within the million-acre Pinelands National Reserve, recognized for its unique natural resources and designated as a U.S. Biosphere Reserve of national and international significance. The state forest sprawls across portions of Atlantic, Camden, and Burlington counties and is one of the most popular destinations in the state park system.
The DEP lists 43 animals found in the state forest as threatened or endangered, including the Pine Barrens tree frog, timber rattlesnake and pine snake. The state forest also boasts some 750 species of plants, including wild orchids, sedges, grasses and insect-eating plants. Rare plants include the bog asphodel, swamp pink and Pine Barrens gentian. The predominant trees are the pitch pine, various oak species and Atlantic white cedar.
Visitors are reminded that off-road vehicle use of any kind (for example, ATVs, side by sides 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 on an established road.
Enforcement of illegal off-road vehicle activity is ongoing. 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 to $500 for a first offense, $500 to $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.
Park visitors who encounter ATVs on or off established park roads or see suspicious or illegal activities on the Department’s entrusted public lands may call 1-877-WARNDEP (1-877-927-6337). Additionally, there is a Warn DEP iPhone and Android application that allows visitors to report environmental abuses, including off-road vehicles. For information on how to download the application, visit: www.nj.gov/dep/warndep.htm
For more about New Jersey’s Parks, Forests & Historic Sites, visit: www.njparksandforests.org/
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Follow the New Jersey State Park Service on Instagram @newjerseystateparks
Follow Commissioner LaTourette on Twitter and Instagram @shawnlatur and follow the DEP on Twitter @NewJerseyDEP, Facebook @newjerseydep, Instagram @nj.dep and LinkedIn @newjerseydep