Barriers Erected to Protect Ponds from ATV Damage at Wharton State Forest
The state Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Parks and Forestry, with help from a variety of park recreation users, has installed wooden barriers to protect four ecologically sensitive vernal ponds in Wharton State Forest from damage caused by illegal off-road vehicle use.
This initial phase is part of a broader effort to protect ecologically sensitive areas in the 125,000-acre state forest. Wharton is the largest park in the state system and is the heart of the globally unique Pinelands National Reserve. It covers parts of Atlantic, Burlington and Camden counties and is near the southern edge of Ocean County.
“This effort, a collaboration of environmental groups, off-road vehicle groups that advocate for responsible use of unimproved roads in Wharton, and other stakeholders, builds upon our ongoing efforts to strike the right balance in protecting the natural resources that are unique to this region,” said State Park Service Director Mark Texel.
Intermittent or vernal ponds are shallow depressions found throughout the Pinelands that periodically dry out as the ground water table fluctuates. They are ecologically important because they provide breeding habitat for many of the region’s unique amphibian and plant species. Fish that would otherwise eat the eggs and larvae of the amphibians cannot live in these ponds. Some of the species, such as the Pine Barrens tree frog, are found in few places outside the Pinelands. In the past, some off-road vehicle drivers have run their vehicles through these ponds both during their wet and dry periods. As their tires leave deep tracks and ruts in the ponds, they destroy animal and plant habitats.
Park Service and State Forest Fire Service personnel worked with volunteers to place timber barriers around the access points of the selected ponds. Small gaps were left to allow pedestrian access. The New Jersey Pinelands Commission science staff provided guidance on areas suited for the project.
“The commission is pleased with the outcome of this collaboration with the DEP,” said Nancy Wittenberg, executive director of the Pinelands Commission. “The Pinelands Commission has been consulting with the DEP on a range of issues regarding the protection of Wharton and looks forward to future initiatives.”
The work was completed on Feb. 25 and already frogs could be seen and heard in the ponds and large egg masses were spotted, said the DEP.
Involved in the effort were the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, Iron in the Pines, Open Trails NJ, NJPineBarrens.com, the South Jersey Botany Group, the New Jersey Trail Riders Association, South Jersey Geocachers, the Gossamer Hunting Club and the Whitesbog Historic Trust.
The barriers are made of wood posts and rails that blend in with the forest environment, Texel said. “Now that these barriers are in place at pilot locations, Park Service personnel and State Park Police will monitor these areas,” said Texel. “Our goal is to expand to other sensitive areas.”
The project complements a comprehensive education and enforcement effort designed to reduce environmental damage in Wharton, which has become popular for off-road vehicles because of its vast network of sand roads and many access points. The effort, which includes a special Park Police unit dedicated to enforcement, is designed to make sure that only street-legal vehicles use the forest roads and that they remain only on clearly established unimproved roads.
As part of this effort, ecologically sensitive areas have been posted with signs warning vehicle users to keep out. Park Police have focused patrols on these areas. Some 60 entrances to the state forest have also been marked with signs reminding the public that motor vehicle and environmental laws are being enforced.
— Pat Johnson