By Michele S. Byers
Take a hike through any of New Jersey’s large state parks, forests or wildlife management areas, and at some point you’ll come across deep, muddy ruts and tire tracks, broken and smashed vegetation and, in some cases, stream banks and slopes churned into gullies.
These are not signs of habitat management, or rangers and maintenance crews on patrol. They’re the signature of illegal all-terrain vehicles, quads, dirt bikes, giant off-road trucks and other off-road vehicles (ORVs).
For those who love the outdoors in a natural state, illegal ORV riding is a growing nuisance. Ruts, tire tracks and loud engines detract from the enjoyment of scenic landscapes and what should be a peaceful nature experience.
For rare animals and plants, the damage can be devastating. A muddy tire rut can be a death sentence for a young reptile or amphibian, trapped in an overheating puddle with no food or refuge. ORV tires can spread disease vectors like the ranavirus, which kills amphibians, from one state to another as infected mud is trailered cross-country.
As tires tear up virgin soil and plants and expose bare rock, invasive weeds are spread from forest edges deep into pristine habitats. Loosened soil flows down gullies, silting streams and ruining habitat for brook trout and other clear water species.
Rare plants, which were once prolific in the middle of old sand cartways in the Pine Barrens, have been wiped out as high-powered, 4-wheeled buggies known as “quads” have literally scoured most of the historic sand lanes. In fact, the pit and mound topography created by these machines has not only devastated roadside flora, but has made many roads impassable to emergency vehicles, making it harder for forest fire and emergency rescue personnel to keep public lands safe.
The opening of the first state-owned off-road vehicle park last winter, near Woodbine in Cape May County, was good news for all New Jersey outdoor lovers, not just those who ride all-terrain vehicles.
The Mount Pleasant ATV Park provides a safe place for law-abiding ORV riders, and its opening triggers new state requirements to help law enforcement authorities crack down on illegal riders.
Under a 2009 ORV law promoted by New Jersey Conservation Foundation, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and others, the state Motor Vehicle Commission is now required to tag and register off-road vehicles.
The requirements will help authorities identify illegal riders without having to chase them. The law imposes stiff penalties for illegal riding on public lands, including fines and even confiscating vehicles from repeat offenders. Revenue generated by fines will be used for educational programs and training on the operation of ORVs, and restoring damaged lands. All riders under the age of 18 must get safety training certification.
Now that the ATV park in Cape May County is open, will ORV riders flock to the southern tip of New Jersey to ride legally, lessening the damage to our parklands? Only time will tell if this “carrot and stick” approach will work.
We’ve already learned that the “carrot” of creating legal places to ride doesn’t work by itself.
The Pinelands Commission let New Jersey Conservation Foundation test the idea for 10 years, allowing a responsible group of riders to run a non-profit ORV park at a former gravel pit. There were safe tracks for kids and beginners, a picnic area, and trails graded and watered to reduce dust. Federal motorized trail money was used to maintain the site. The safe, clean park accommodated virtually every kind of off-road vehicle.
Sadly, the park created more pressure on the surrounding state parkland, because some riders chose not to enter the park and pay fees and insurance.
But now the state has the “stick” of enforcement: the new registration and tagging law.
Consistent enforcement and education can reduce the environmental destruction caused by illegal ORV riding. And with the opening of the new Mt. Pleasant ATV Park, riders have a legal and safe place to ride. Hopefully, this combination will add up to a win for the environment.
For more information on damages caused by illegal ORVs, go to the Pinelands Preservation Alliance website at www.pinelandsalliance.org/protection/hotissues/ecological/offroadvehicles/.
And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.