Lack of money, staff cuts, crumbling historic structures, and off-road vehicles that run roughshod over sensitive wetlands and forests have taken a toll on New Jersey’s state parks, especially in the Pine Barrens, according to a new report presented by an environmental coalition.

The report released Monday by Ecological Solutions, a New Jersey-based private consultant, says the state parks and wildlife management areas are neglected and calls for a new approach by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and its Division of Parks and Forestry. It suggests creating a friends of the parks nonprofit that could raise much-needed money and volunteers.

The report was commissioned by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, in partnership with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Highlands Coalition, and the New York-New Jersey Trails Conference. The coalition has launched a Fix Our Parks initiative to reach the public.

In recent months, the DEP closed parts of six wildlife management areas for the summer because of illegal activity, such as off-roading, rather than posting staff on-site to enforce rules. It did the same last summer, members of the coalition noted Monday during a virtual news briefing.

“This report really does an excellent job of laying out the challenges that our parks and public lands are facing,” said Tom Gilbert, co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “... We need structural changes. We need changes in the culture. We need a greater commitment to enforcement of our existing laws and regulations, to crack down on ... people that are violating the law.”

A representative for the DEP could not be reached immediately for comment.

The report, written by Michael Van Clef, a biologist and owner of Ecological Solutions, says New Jersey spends $2 per resident for its parks budget — about the national average but far below Pennsylvania at $18 and New York at $22. That lack of funding has led to problems in carrying out the mission of the parks, such as a lack of amenities and enforcement, Van Clef said.

The group gave a presentation of the 44-page report’s findings, but much of the discussion turned to off-road vehicles.

What’s the problem with off-road vehicles?

Emile DeVito, director of science and stewardship at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, showed an aerial view of an area of the Menantico Ponds Wildlife Management Area near Millville, which he said had been laid bare by off-road vehicles.

“This is not an isolated incident,” DeVito said. “This is just rampant all over the Pine Barrens. Habitat is being destroyed by people going in circles, driving up and down hills until they erode into just piles of sand.”

DeVito called it an “epidemic” and faulted the DEP for lack of enforcement, part of which the group said was because of lack of staffing, but others called it a lack of will.

Jason Howell, a staff member of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, was on the Zoom call as the report was presented. Howell was at Menantico, one of the wildlife management areas the DEP closed because they have “attracted large crowds and unauthorized activities — including swimming and off-road vehicle use — creating an unsafe environment.”

As Howell was on camera, a woman wandered into the frame and asked about the closure. She said she wanted to go fishing and didn’t know why the state couldn’t enforce the law without closing down areas.

What are ‘the Pinelands’?

Protection of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens falls under a complex arrangement spelled out by creation of the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve established by Congress in 1978. The Pinelands comprises forests, wetlands, farms, and towns. About half has been permanently protected so far.

Though it was created by the U.S. government, the Pinelands is not afforded the protections of a national park. Rather, it is overseen by a 15-member Pinelands Commission, which has representatives appointed by the governor, municipalities, and federal government. The commission has power to review and reject proposed developments. But it does not have law enforcement powers.

The Pinelands Commission has produced a map that outlines areas recommended for vehicles amid existing sandy roads in the 100,000-acre Wharton State Forest, the state’s largest park and de facto heart of the Pinelands.

The DEP, which has enforcement power, has not formally adopted the map and has a limited budget to patrol such a vast area.

The coalition of environmental groups faults the DEP for not cracking down and not posting signs or denoting where off-roading is prohibited. Vehicles that traverse the sandy roads and thick woods run the gamut from dirt bikes to all terrain vehicles to big trucks, sometimes in large numbers organized through social media.

What can be done?

Among issues the report found concerning:

  • New Jersey park staffing has decreased by 28% since 2006, leading to reduced services, including seasonally staffed or closed nature centers, swim areas closing early, and delayed storm cleanup.

  • Just 15 park superintendents are responsible for more than 50 parks.

  • The ratio of park service staff to visitors is 1 to 36,000, and there is one Forest Service staff for every 5,500 acres.

  • That’s while there’s been a 13% increase in acquired park acreage since 2008.

  • There’s an estimated $400 million backlog in deferred maintenance.

“The combination of reduced staffing and increased lands requiring management is severely stressing the park system,” Van Clef wrote.

Among the report’s suggestions:

  • Establish the statewide parks friends group.

  • Increase state staffing and improve efficiency through partnerships.

  • Tackle threats, such as overabundant deer, invasive species, and off-road vehicles.

A friends group would form a diverse board with help from the DEP. Its primary purpose would be to raise money from private and government sources. It would also serve as an advocate for state lands, recruit and coordinate volunteers, and contract with private businesses for projects with public input. Similar nonprofit “friends” groups are widely used elsewhere.

The report also recommended that state park staff be restructured and evaluated, with a change in “culture.” It says the state should develop a comprehensive plan for the overall state park system as well as for individual parks.

“Some have said that ‘collapse’ is inevitable and these trends are demoralizing remaining staff,” the report states. “It is certain that the integrity of park resources has been significantly reduced.”