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Ariel View of Wharton State Forest

Ariel View of Wharton State Forest

Policy Notes: March 2024

Policy Notes are designed to update the public on the activities of the Pinelands Commission, which have been summarized by Pinelands Preservation Alliance staff who attend all public meetings of the Commission.

April 5, 2024


Wharton Map Steals the Show
NJ DEP Assistant Commissioner John Cecil gave a presentation on the Wharton State Forest Visiting Vehicle Use Map. You can learn more about the plan on NJ DEP’s website, and read PPA’s position on the plan on our blog.

In the following discussion among the Commissioners, Mark Lohbauer provided some historical context: the Pinelands Commission passed a resolution in 2017 to adopt the USGS Topographic Maps. It included about 120 miles of routes that have since been determined to be un-drivable for various reasons (nonexistent, hiking trails, fire control lines, etc.). Lohbauer remarked that he was not surprised by NJ DEP’s findings that many of those ‘approved’ routes are actually impassible; he explained that the Pinelands Commission did not have the staff resources needed to conduct a thorough review of all the routes, at the time.

Cecil stuck around through the public comment period that followed, in which commenters largely focused on the proposed map for Wharton. A major point of agreement between commenters—both in favor and opposed to the Wharton map—was the need for more enforcement of laws against illegal off-road vehicle activity. However, it is still not clear how such enforcement should proceed if the roads themselves are not actually defined; the Wharton State Forest Visiting Vehicle Use Map is a first step towards remedying this paradox.

Mining Company Throws a Wet Blanket on Aquifer Protections
The mood in the Terrence D. Moore Conference Room was celebratory the day that the Pinelands Commission finally approved new protections for the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer. Commissioners and public attendees in the room expressed their elation to see these long-awaited rules coming to fruition—and the staff were undoubtedly happy to wrap up the arduous CMP amendment process! The singular exception to this conviviality was a remote participant who called in during the public comment period to express the objections of the Clayton Sand Company to these new regulations. Although significant concessions were made to recognize the way that sand mining companies use water as ‘non-consumptive’—and therefore exempt from most of the new regulations—mining industry representatives were still unhappy. This past month, we learned the consequences of their displeasure: the Clayton Sand company filed a Notice of Appeal to these amendments, calling their adoption procedurally and substantively defective. The NJ Attorney General’s office notified the Pinelands Commission of this development on February 26, which the Commissioners then discussed in a closed session that was called during the March 8 meeting.

Who has the Dirt on Pemberton?
A recent article in the Pine Barrens Tribune follows up on the illegal filling of wetlands that we described in last month’s blog post. The NJ DEP seems reluctant to do any real testing of the unvetted fill that was trucked in from recycling facilities in north Jersey to expand an old cranberry farm road running through wetlands. Interviews with staff/leaders from Pinelands Preservation Alliance, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, and the Rancocas Conservancy highlighted how ridiculous we find this lackadaisical approach to be.  The most insidious contaminants such as lead and PFAS cannot be visually detected. When the topic came up at the March 8 meeting of the Pinelands Commission, staff said that they had still not received any direct response to their letter outlining the problems with the actions undertaken by the property owner. While these notices of violations from various government agencies gather dust, the plentiful spring rain will continue to leach whatever contaminants this soil may contain into our Pinelands aquifers.

Pinelands Commission Releases Its Annual Report
Each year the Pinelands Commission staff releases a report that summarizes all of the agency’s activity from the previous year. You can read the 2023 report online. We crossed an important threshold this year: the majority of the Pinelands (51%; 482,000 acres) are now permanently preserved! This was achieved using several different preservation mechanisms, which we described in a previous blog post. Of the 1,359 acres of land that were preserved in the Pinelands Area last year, 35% of this was due to programs administered by the Pinelands Commission. Looking at preservation trends over the past decade, it appears that the rate of increase has slowed considerably since 2019 as the low-hanging fruit has already been plucked, and the remaining land that is ‘up for grabs’ becomes rarer.

The annual report provides a snapshot of the location and type of current and future development that is expected to occur in the Pinelands. The majority of the applications that the commission handles are still residential (52%), followed by commercial/industrial applications (28%). The pattern of where these developments are planned to occur roughly follows the expectation set by the Pinelands CMP: areas with the most restrictive standards, such as the Preservation Area District, have lower numbers of applications, while new development is concentrated in the least restrictive areas, like the Regional Growth Areas.

The report includes a summary of the educational and scientific activities undertaken by commission staff over the year. The research round-up highlights one instance in which illegal off-road vehicle use disrupted their studies:

“Prior to the December water-level monitoring round, large trucks drove through two of the ponds in Brendan Byrne State Forest and damaged the pond sediments, vegetation community, and metal posts used for measuring water levels. Trucks drove in the same pond and other long-term monitoring ponds in the past. The damage was reported to the NJDEP southern regional superintendent of the New Jersey Park Service.”

Pinelands Municipal Council Watch
Months since the council last met: 17

The by-laws mandate that the council at least hold an annual meeting “between the third day and the tenth day of March.” For the second year in a row, this deadline came and went with no meeting.

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