A Renewed Effort
The NJ DEP has begun to implement a few changes to their enforcement tactics to address off-road vehicle destruction in Wharton State Forest. These new changes include a small increase in fines $250 to $900 if vehicle impoundment is required and designating officers specifically to Wharton State Forest instead of being assigned regionally. However, there has been no increase of officers on patrol at any given time, which implies that officers still will be unable to effectively cover the hundreds of miles of roads left open by the DEP. Signs will be posted to inform the public of illegal nature of off-roading at roughly half of the entrance points of the state forest (sixty-four), preventing the ignorance defense when ticketed persons stand before a judge. Although these changes are small, they are important and will eventually contribute to the solution once a substantive travel management plan is enacted.
The individuals who engage in illegal off-roading are experienced law-breakers. Many of them have been eluding the police for years on ATVs, dirt bikes, and modified Jeeps and trucks. They fully understand the limits of Park Police and they are happy to continue the cat and mouse game with only the slight risk of a fine. These individuals spend many thousands of dollars per year on vehicle upgrades, transportation, and equipment and the minuscule risk of a $250 ticket is not a deterrent to dedicated ORV riders. Instead of a “fine”, the off-roaders simply view this as an entrance fee that they may never have to pay. To elude enforcement, they will simply travel into heavily damaged areas where Park Police vehicles are not able to go. Once in those areas, they are completely free from any chance of being discovered or penalized.
One popular idea often floated at meetings is the use of hidden cameras to capture license plates of offenders, but this idea is filled with flaws. Much of this damage is committed at night, where cameras are completely ineffective at capturing license plates or other details. Cameras are a known monitoring tool and are actively searched for and often removed by these individuals. In effect, the use of hidden cameras has created a veritable Easter-Egg hunt with the prize of an expensive camera for lawbreakers. Additionally, the cameras do not have a telephoto lens and are completely immobile. Even in the daylight, a license plate may be completely illegible for a variety of technical reasons combined with the distance these cameras need to be from the monitored site to go undiscovered.
The bottom line is that we need a map and plan that makes it crystal clear to anyone traveling in a truck, jeep or car or on a motorcycle where they can and cannot travel in order to prevent the destruction of critical habitat and harm to rare and endangered plants and animals. It is also essential so that there is no doubt for law enforcement officers or courts when ticketing and prosecuting law breakers. The DEP’s enforcement rearrangement will be a help to such a plan as effective patrols are needed for its success. Volunteers will also be critical as many of these areas must be monitored beyond what law enforcement is capable of to ensure that law-breakers have not broken through into sensitive areas.
This is good news overall. We are on the verge of a great success of land management for the Pinelands National Reserve due to the renewed effort by the citizens of this region and their demands for the protection of the land we all hold so dear. Through tremendous effort and sacrifice, you have written your legislators, you have spoken at contentious meetings, and many of you have even marched on Trenton in the pouring rain. This is the type of commitment that will make a difference and we are proud to be working alongside you towards the preservation and recognition of the Pinelands.