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  • Writer's pictureKristin Guglietti

Locals protest DEP plan for Wharton State Forest

Courtesy Photo More than 100 locals attended the rally on March 9 protesting against road closures in Wharton State Forest.

WATERFORD WORKS, N.J.—More than 100 people protested against road closures in Wharton State Forest on March 9 at 1136 Old White Horse Pike.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) plans to close 278 miles of roads in Wharton State Forest

The NJDEP released a map designating legal driving routes within the Wharton State Forest.

March 9 was supposed to be the last day the NJDEP was accepting comments from the public for the proposed Wharton State Forest Visiting Vehicle Use Map.

The NJDEP has extended the public comment period to April 8.

Open Trails NJ President John Druding of Tabernacle, N.J. led the rally, which was rescheduled to 10 a.m. because of the rainstorm in the afternoon.

“One of our strategies is to encourage the local municipalities to pass resolutions against the new map, so far five municipalities have done so: Medford, Medford Lakes, Hammonton, Galloway and Shamong and now I hear Waterford as well,” Druding said.

During the rally, Waterford Twp. mayor Thomas Giangiulio Jr. gave a speech.

“Our community is one of the oldest communities in Southern New Jersey. It dates way, way back. These trails have been there since the beginning and as several of you were just hooting about our taxes pay to patrol that and that’s our open space. That space was given to us by God himself, not the DEP, and only God himself has the right to take that back, not the DEP,” Giangiulio said.

The Waterford Twp. mayor said he reached out to several legislators who are supportive of keeping the roads open.

“I want to thank you all for coming out on such a nasty day to support this and we’re behind you 100 percent,” Giangiulio said.

Waterford Twp. Committeeman Andrew Wade spoke next.

“In Waterford Township, we have roughly $64 million worth of state-owned property that we receive a little less than $400,000 a year in a stipend in lieu of taxes. That’s millions of dollars that Waterford Township loses in tax revenue and yet they want to go ahead and restrict our use to open space and restrict our use by permits and just total restriction,” Wade said.

Wade said he is “fed up” with the NJDEP.

“They are an out of control organization. I hope that our senators, assembly people take note of this and start to rein them in,” Wade said.

Wade said at the next committee meeting, the committee needs to do another resolution continuing support to keep the roads at Wharton State Forest open.

Waterford Twp. Committeeman Joel Thompson spoke next.

“We’re going to continue to fight. Continue to use all avenues that we can to make sure that the roads stay open. The whole purpose behind the Wharton State Forest—it’s like in their mandate—is that it is open for the public to use and to enjoy the nature that God has provided for us, so I thank you for coming out and for fighting for it,” Thompson said.

Waterford Twp. Environmental Commission Chairman Rick Yeatman also spoke at the rally.

“We will continue to win our fight and thank you for your time,” Yeatman said.

Later at the rally, Steve Szabo, president of the nonprofit Pine Barrens Venom Jeep Club, spoke to the crowd.

“We must advocate for the proper and lawful use of our state forests; ensuring that they remain accessible to all,” Szabo said.

Ron Wiggins of Tabernacle, N.J. said there’s no legitimate reason to close the roads.

“We need to contact our elected officials. We need to make a loud voice. This is the start of it.

Spread the word, Keep it going, and let’s squash this thing,” Wiggins said.

After the rally, The Gazette asked Druding why it’s important to keep the roads open to the public.

“A lot of us especially the local people have been using these woods for our entire lives to do all kinds of activities: hiking, kayaking, hunting, just kind of exploring the Pines, stargazing, whatever it might be and the road closures they’re looking to put in place—they’re looking to close over half the roads within Wharton and it’s going to make it really difficult to really do a lot of those activities that people are used to,” Druding said.

About Open Trails NJ:

Open Trails NJ was created in 2015 when the DEP decided, without warning, to close over 250 miles of roads within Wharton State Forest. The community outrage against this action sparked a grassroots effort to educate the DEP on the significant negative consequences to outdoor recreation resulting from the closures.

Ultimately, the DEP relented, reopened the roads and apologized for the action.


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