Why do we want a Visitor Map for Wharton State Forest?
The NJ Department of Environmental Protection will release a much needed visitor use map for Wharton State Forest.
By Jason HowellJanuary 19, 2024
With over 125,000 acres of forest, hundreds of miles of trails, dozens of miles of paddling routes on multiple rivers, and innumerable wildlife habitat areas like ponds, paleo-dunes, ancient hills, and historic sites; Wharton State Forest is a haven for New Jersey’s rare species as well as a destination for sustainable recreation. In NJ, Wharton is almost unique as a place where still see native wildlife in their natural habitat, camp under the stars, breathe clean air, fish, hunt, hike, bike, or horseback ride for miles, or drink clean water from the streams (with a simple filter).
As New Jersey Residents, we know what traffic and congestion looks like, and that is why we love our parks, wildlife habitats, rivers, and the amazing landscapes of our biggest natural areas. We all deserve to escape the concrete and traffic, and get out into nature, but not everyone knows how to do that or where to go. That’s why we support creating clear and easy to read Visitor Maps for all our State Parks, especially the biggest like Wharton State Forest. These maps are important to protect rare wildlife habitats and for people that have not always had equal access to our open spaces. Visitor Maps are tools that help us all navigate from A to B while protecting the special places we came to see.
However, some narrow interests are opposed to creating new maps to let people see and experience their open spaces. Often, these interests represent damaging activities, such as illegal off-road vehicle use, that tend to displace healthier and more positive recreation like hiking, biking, horseback riding, and more.
The conservationists who helped to acquire the lands from the estate of Joseph Wharton could not have envisioned the drastic changes in population density and recreational demand that would come in the coming decades. When Wharton State Forest was first acquired by New Jersey in the mid-1950s, most of South and Central Jersey was still farmland and forests. Motor vehicle travel to and through the area by tourists was rare. The area was envisioned as a low-use natural resource reservoir and recreational destination for NJ citizens and the occasional out-of-towner.
Those who initiated the acquisition could not have foreseen the dramatic changes to the region within only a few decades. For example, in 1950 the population of Ocean County was approximately 68,000, but in the seven decades since the population has ballooned to more than 656,000. Just one township in Atlantic County, Egg Harbor Township, had a population of under 5,000 in 1955, now stands at over 50,000, and is projected by the town council to rise to 100,000 within a generation. Approximately 42.5 million people (2020 figure) live within a 150-mile radius of Chatsworth, NJ. As outdoor recreational demand increases, a great wilderness and recreational resource like Wharton deserves thoughtful planning and management to ensure that this level of demand does not compromise the amazing qualities of the place we all care about.
Because of a lack of direct management of motorized routes wee have seen increasing rates of issues like illegal dumping, illegal off-road vehicle use, vandalism and that can be solved by designating appropriate routes for vehicle use and areas that are only appropriate for hiking, biking, or horseback riding.
This is why It is more important than ever to have a clear, rational, and science-based visitor use plan to manage recreation in Wharton State Forest by the many millions of people that will visit in the coming years. Visitor maps like the one in development for Wharton are standard for all National Parks, National Forests, and most State Parks around the country. These plans are critical to ensure that the natural resources that have been entrusted to us will be preserved for our enjoyment and future generations.
Public Comment on the curretn draft ends on March 9th. Most residents are supporting the plan for its goal to expand hiking, biking, paddling, and horseback opportunities while focusing on maintaining facilities and infrastructure. However, a small minority of special interest ORV clubs will try to oppose some of the plan’s route designations that prevent motor vehicle use in wetlands and habitat areas.
That is why we need forest lovers around the area to submit written comments to ensure that the Park Service understands that most people demand that they preserve Wharton’s great natural wonders for the future.
take action & Learn more
Submit Public Comments by March 9th
Sign up here to provide comments on the visitor map. We will contact you directly.
The DEP will accept public comment on the draft Visitor Use Map from January 24 – March 9, 2024. Public comments can be submitted online. DEP anticipates releasing the final map sometime in 2024. A link to submit your comments, see the proposed map, and review the process followed by the DEP can be found here:
There is a very complete FAQ section at the bottom of their webpage which we recommend you review.
Listen to The Pine Barrens Podcast
The January 9, 2024 episode is called Wharton State Forest – Navigating the New Visitor Use Map with Russell Juelg of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.