Off-road vehicles causing problems in New Jersey

Unauthorized trails speed erosion in wilderness areas

April 29, 2001|By Jennifer Moroz | Jennifer Moroz,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

It was on a doctor's orders almost 25 years ago that Phil Iapalucci started walking through South Jersey's Pinelands to relieve stress.

Ever since then, the Moorestown, N.J., lawyer, 61, has spent most of his spare time roaming the region known for its serene forests of pine and oak, exceptional flora and tea-colored streams.

These days, Iapalucci said, it seems that everywhere he turns in the forests, he is faced with the unmistakable work of all-terrain vehicles.

"I try to avoid taking people out here now because I get so angry," said Iapalucci, the Outdoor Club of South Jersey's hiking leader, on an excursion to Wharton State Forest, which covers parts of Burlington, Camden and Atlantic Counties. "There's just so much damage."

As the popularity of off-road vehicles grows and wilderness dwindles, all-terrain enthusiasts nationwide are taking to public parks and forests, often illegally, in their quest for places to ride.

And from the deserts of California to the tundra of Alaska, the popular vehicles are increasingly being blamed for tearing up delicate ecosystems and ruining the experiences of nature lovers such as Iapalucci.

Seeing their own forests marred, conservationists in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have joined a national effort to manage the onslaught of the machines onto public land.

"All you need is a small percentage of lawless [riders] and it seems like anarchy, the destruction is so great," said Emile DeVito, manager of science for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. "Right now, there's no comprehensive system in place to deal with it."

ATV users argue that it is unfair that states cater to other recreational activities while limiting theirs. By not designating enough places to ride, the states are inviting illegal activity, many say.

Parks off-limits

In New Jersey, off-road vehicles are prohibited on all 326,000 acres of state park and forest land, with exceptions made for a few motorized dirt-bike events. But that has not stopped the vehicles, particularly ATVs, from making their mark, said Richard Barker, assistant director of the Division of Parks and Forestry.

"If you took a helicopter ride, you could see the extensive damage," he said.

In Pennsylvania, where there are 188 miles of legal ATV trails in the state forests, officials have reported similar devastation by riders who have taken to the backwoods.

At Michaux State Forest in Fayetteville, Franklin County, "hundreds of miles" of illegal trails have been blazed in addition to the 40 miles of state-sanctioned paths, district forester Mike Kusko said.

"Erosion is a big problem," he said. "They're riding up and down steep hills not meant for motorized vehicles and crossing high-quality, pristine trout streams."

Freshwater wetlands, home to a number of endangered species, are especially attractive to mud-loving riders and have been particularly hard hit, officials in both states said.

In one wetlands section of Wharton, a barren, muddy expanse is all that is left of what just a few years ago was grassland.

Violators in New Jersey face fines ranging from $100 to $1,000. In Pennsylvania, the penalty is $25 to $100 for a first offense and $50 to $200 for subsequent offenses.

Little enforcement

But catching culprits has proved difficult.

Four rangers monitor Wharton's 110,000 acres of forest at any given time. At Michaux, there are five ranger positions, only one of them currently filled, to police 85,000 acres.

"They learn quickly that when they see our truck to turn around and high-tail it because they know we can't chase them," Kusko said.

Many in New Jersey, some ATV users maintain, do not find out that riding is illegal on state land until too late because the state's off-road policy is not clear.

The Division of Motor Vehicle Services tells owners that they must register their all-terrain vehicles if operated "on public lands or waters or across a public roadway."

Yet the state Department of Environmental Protection, which manages most state land, bars their use.

"A lot of people spend $5,000 to $6,000 for an ATV and then find there's no place to ride," said Dennis Bailey, president of the 40-member ATV Association of South Jersey.

So, many ride illegally, and risk getting caught.

"They pay the fine, and they're still going to go back out," Bailey said. "When you pay that kind of money for a recreational vehicle, you're going to use it."

Other than on one's own property, the only legal places to ride in New Jersey, Bailey said, are two off-road parks, one run by Egg Harbor Township in Atlantic County and one operated on land owned by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Woodland, Burlington County.

Meanwhile, the popularity of ATVs continues to skyrocket.

3,017 registered vehicles

In New Jersey, the number of registered vehicles has gone from 800 in 1989 to 3,017 this year, with as many as 100,000 unregistered. In Pennsylvania, the number has jumped 145 percent to 67,700 in the last five years, not including an estimated 200,000 unregistered vehicles.

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