Pinelands photographer Albert Horner in his home studio in Medford.

One of the New Jersey State Museum’s most recent exhibitions — closed by the pandemic — was “Preserving the Pinelands: Albert Horner’s Portraits of a National Treasure.”

The exhibit was designed to bring the beauty of the New Jersey’s Pinelands National Reserve to the general public and to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Pinelands Preservation Act, considered by former Governor Brendan Byrne to be the most important accomplishment of his administration. (See U.S. 1 October 9, 2019, “Pinelands Photographer Thinks Beyond the Lens.”)

Horner, however, is also a Pinelands advocate who created the blog “Pine Barrens Under Siege” and strives to draw attention to current ecological problems affecting our collective natural treasure.

With the New Jersey Film Festival’s inclusion of David Scott Kessler’s “The Pine Barrens” in its current schedule of screenings, it seemed proper to let Horner share some thoughts noted in his blog “Pine Barrens Under Siege” under the title “Our Public Lands are Being Devastated”:

When you think of our state forest, wildlife management areas (WMAs), Green Acres properties, private conservation preserves you may envision open fields, grassy meadows, tranquil streams, beautiful stands of native trees, all protected and out of harm’s way with the exception of, perhaps, forest fires.

This is not what my colleague and I have found during our recent, and on-going, tours of public lands, all locations visited were within the Pine Barrens.

Our mission was, and is, to record locations damaged by abusive operators of 4 x 4 Jeep type vehicles, dirt bikes, ATV (all considered off-road vehicles) and serial trash dumpers, all illegal activities.

There is pervasive eco-carnage going on day and night in our public lands. We have begun identifying locations within our public lands that have been vandalized by these land assaulters and what we’ve found is quite astounding.

Keep in mind that once we started our project we logged 115 locations that have been violated in a very short period of time.

We have an additional long list of locations to visit from information gleaned from state and local officials plus our extensive personal knowledge.

Below is what we have found while conducting our surveys:

An image of the damage caused by all-terrain vehicles that speed through the muddy Pinelands for sport and destroy the delicate ecosystem with their wheels.

Hundreds (this could be more like thousands) of acres of public lands have been driven over by these motorized bandits as if our public lands are their personal Mad Max movie set. The vegetation, soils and waterways have been damaged, in many cases permanently, by erosion, compaction, crushing and deforestation. Noise pollution and fragmented wildlife habitat are also in the mix.

Ecologically valuable wetlands, vernal pools (breeding grounds for amphibians), open meadows, ice age formed hills and sand dunes, and stream beds have been forever damaged.

Thousands upon thousands of acres of our public lands are no longer accessible to the general public because these off-road machines have rendered them impassable to travel by normal vehicles. The mud holes and wallows that have been created by these off-road vehicles are now new breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Public utility right-of-ways are almost entirely unprotected and are havens for off-roaders, wheelers, mudders and dumpers of trash. We haven’t found one right-of-way that hasn’t been abused.

They practice a form of recreational bulldozing day and night, usually in groups. Consumption of large quantities of beer and open fires are common, even when our forests are under fire restrictions (just about every site we have visited is littered with beer cans and has the charred remains of a fire).

Organized 4 x 4 clubs from Maryland to New York routinely visit our state forests and public lands. They act like a squad of Marines going on a mission, big trucks, big tires, beefed up suspensions (no expense is spared) — their enemy is our public lands. There are organized competitions, many of which are sanctioned by state authorities, with hundreds of organizations where they pay a nominal permit fee, are not required to post any type of bond or insurance for damage they may cause and take their profits home.

Dumping is routinely practiced by contractors, landscapers and the general public. Often the same areas are used again and again. You don’t have to travel very far on any back road to find a dump site. I have seen more than one boat discarded in the woods.

All of our work has been within the Pine Barrens, a.k.a. Pinelands National Reserve, a most sensitive ecosystem that is recognized as a national and world wide treasure. Our goal with this study is to generate public awareness of this out of control land grab and return our public land to the public and out of the hands of a chosen few who use our lands as their own personal giant sandbox or profit making ventures.

The main reason our public lands have come to be known as a type of motor sports park or arena is that the DEP and the Pinelands Commission have for years issued permits for motor sport events, ORV events. This practice has created a culture among many that only see the Pine Barrens as their personal off-road vehicle (ORV) playground.

It would not be unreasonable to think that many of the off-road vehicles sold in this region are bought especially to off-road in the Pine Barrens.

New Jersey is the only state in this region that allows motor sport activities in state parks and public lands. Maryland, Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania to do not allow ORV events in state parks. Thus the reason South Jersey gets so much ORV traffic from out of state – they can’t do it in their state.

What is more annoying ORV events are only staged in the South Jersey Pinelands. These events are not permitted in Stokes State Forest, High Point State Forest, Round Valley Recreational Area or Spruce Run Recreational Area, just to name a few Northern State Parks that seem exempt for this activity.

Please pass this blog on to anyone you feel is deeply concerned about our public lands. Sign-up to follow our blog so as we update you will be notified of new post while the mission continues.

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