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Connecting to the Land



In the Pinelands today, we find ourselves in the same struggle that has been waged since the conservation movement started. There is a constant struggle to define what sustainable use of our natural resources means. How much “use” can a natural resource take before the balance is tipped?

When automobiles were introduced to Yosemite, John Muir cautioned against the threat of “windshield wilderness” in our parks and preserved land. However, both Muir and National Park Director Stephen Mather recognized the usefulness of the automobile in transporting visitors to the parks (Duncan,Burns 2010). When interviewed by John McPhee for the New Yorker, National Park Director George Hartzog discussed his frustrations with the outcomes of the approach to automobiles in Yosemite and the Parks.

Quoted by McPhee (1971) “The automobile as a recreational experience is obsolete…

We cannot accommodate automobiles in such numbers and still provide a quality environment for a recreational experience…. We’ve simply got to do something besides build roads in these parks if we’re going to have any parks left…. I’m not inflexible on anything except that I’m going to get rid of the damned automobile and I’m not going to get rid of people in the process.”(p. 237-238)

Hartzog recognized the usefulness of the automobile for getting people to natural areas, but he also understood the consequences of allowing unmanaged motorized recreation and transport on public land. It is still widely recognized that many motorized visitors fail to leave the perceived safety and comfortable of the automobile for a more authentic experience. The consequence of this is that some begin to look at nature more like an amusement park ride than an interconnected system created by millions of years of evolution. As if through a television screen, a comfort-laden, climate controlled vehicle does not offer a connection to the land. The automobile has become akin to a spaceship for those who perceive themselves to be an alien traveler in a dangerous, foreign land. On the contrary, preserved natural lands are some of the safest and most delicate areas of our modern landscape. With just a bit of research, visitors can confidently leave the confines of their automobile for a fulfilling, fun, and safe experience in the land that we all share


The reality of the importance of land and water becomes clear with slowness, closeness, and dependence. The human body is a perfect vehicle for nature and it offers itself as part of the landscape instead of something distinct and separate. One cannot help but feel an overwhelming appreciation for the land when exposed to it in totality. We, as biological creatures, need to drink from the stream and pond, not drive into it. We want to eat the huckleberries, blueberries, cranberries and teaberries, appreciate the orchids and wildflowers, and not have them crushed into the ground.  We can stop walking or paddling, crouch down to an open flower and breathe in the fragrance of the wild.

Encapsulated in a motor vehicle, one cannot appreciate the drops of dew on a blade of sedge or grass, or a spider web tenuously woven across a trail and gleaming in the morning sun. The motor vehicle has no connection to the land. It cannot drink the water, nor eat the berries–it is a thing without natural origin, powered by a mixture of compounds not found together in the natural world and hazardous to health and life. Some of those contained within these vehicles will have no more compassion for a vibrant pond than a toddler has for a set of building blocks–thinking without consequence to its destruction. To some, these vehicles seem to mask the truth of our dependence on the natural world.

With connection, comes empathy and understanding. Outside, we can touch the shrubs and trees, grasses and flowers, taste the air and the water, and experience both the cold and the warm breeze. It is much harder to destroy a thing when you know it, when you learn to have compassion for it, and feel rough fibers of its structure. We can’t let our only experiences with nature be through the windshield of a vehicle. We lose something important as human beings when we remove ourselves from the natural world in this way. We need nature’s resources for our survival but if we don’t have a connection with the natural world it is difficult to understand the need for its protection. There is a place for vehicles in the Pines, but the consequences of unregulated motor-vehicle access have already taken from us some of the most beautiful areas of the forest. We need a management plan that protects sensitive habitat from off-road vehicles and we need it now.


Here is what you can do to help:

  1. Pinelands Commission Meeting – February 12th and 26th at 9:30 am:  The public will have an opportunity to speak.  Directions to the Pinelands Commission are available on their website.  They are located at 15 Springfield Road in Pemberton NJ.
  2. Tell the DEP Commissioner to Protect Wharton State Forest: Use this link to send an email to DEP Commissioner, Bob Martin today.



Duncan, D., & Burns, K. (2010). The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. United States: National Parks Films.

McPhee, J. (1971). Pieces of the Frame. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

5 responses to “Connecting to the Land”

  1. Mike Kaliss says:

    “We need a management plan that protects sensitive habitat from off-road vehicles and we need it now.” Agreed. However, the original MAP was excessive in closing more than 200 miles of sand roads/trails. The definition of “sensitive” was misused in the original MAP’s closures. Involving folks (stakeholders) who love the Pines and participate in low impact activities is crucial for public support and enforcement of any future closures. The PPA has done great work identifying damaged sites, these need to be protected and restoration work started. For critical undamaged sites like vernal ponds, spungs, and savannahs barriers must be put in place to prevent future damage. For some of the critical areas actual steel gates/barriers need to be installed to block non-emergency vehicle road access.

    • Jason Howell says:

      Hi Mike,

      I understand that one may believe that steel gates and barriers would be effective against irresponsible ORV use, but the unfortunate reality is that many gates would simply be ripped out. Please visit Greenwood WMA if you wish to see this first hand. These areas simply need more robust protection than a steel-gate affords.

      In order to give the Park Police a chance to succeed in punishing and deterring this behavior, we need to provide them with enforceable routes. A single officer can only patrol so many miles of forest-road effectively during their shift, especially when many of these areas are not accessible by any police vehicle. The DEP, by taking away the motorized access plan, has shifted all responsibility on to the Park Police to solve this issue. As the front line in the protection of our natural resources, it must be deeply frustrating for Park Police and Fish and Wildlife officers to be given an impossible task when a ready-to-implement and well-thought out plan is left withering on the vine.

  2. Beth Jackson says:

    How could anyone disagree with this logic? Connection empathy and understanding. Seems so simple. Just walk

  3. Excellent blog post! Whatever did happen to walking?

  4. chris says:

    Well said! Thank you for the thoughtful comment on this ever present land use issue.

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