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Rough going for state-planned ATV park

Environmentalists and others oppose the Monroe Twp. site. Enthusiasts say they deserve legal space.

The Monroe Township property is home to barred owls and tree frogs, but a state official says threatened species are all over the state, including areas the park is intended to spare from ATVs.
The Monroe Township property is home to barred owls and tree frogs, but a state official says threatened species are all over the state, including areas the park is intended to spare from ATVs.Read moreGERALD S. WILLIAMS / Inquirer Staff Photographer

In the spring, the meadow where Fred Akers was standing will fill up with a few feet of water and play host to a threatened species of Pine Barrens tree frog.

But in December, this seasonal pond in Gloucester County is nearly dry and frozen, and Akers could point out the tire tracks disappearing into one of the remaining patches of water.

"As cool as this is - and as sensitive as I think it is - there are the ATV tracks. They were out here doing doughnuts and driving around while I was surveying," said Akers, a local environmentalist. "This is like driving through wetlands."

If New Jersey gets its way, this land in Monroe Township will become a permanent playground for all-terrain vehicles, with a track and miles of trails winding through 224 Pinelands acres.

But that won't happen without a fight from environmentalists and neighbors, who don't want to have to listen to engines revving through the woods.

"We hear them over there now, riding illegally, and it's loud," said Joan Stahl, who lives across from the entrance to the property, a former sand mine. "They come in at dawn, and they stay until dark. The noise, the dust, and we're so close."

In a heavily developed state, this fight pits environmentalists who want to preserve the precious remaining green space against outdoor enthusiasts who say they deserve some room.

The state said opening an ATV park at the former Sahara Sands mine was the best compromise for everyone.

Thousands of ATV riders are illegally using state land, and officials hope opening parks will stop most of that riding.

"A lot of it is that they just don't understand the impact on the environment," said John S. Watson, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection. "Our interests are to protect the natural resources of the state as a whole, and we feel we have to do something."

ATV enthusiasts - supporters put their numbers close to one million in New Jersey - describe themselves as environmentalists as well, and they reject claims that their machines have dirty, polluting engines.

Dale Freitas, president of the New Jersey Off-Highway Vehicle Association, said illegal riding happened because the state had not fulfilled a 2003 promise to provide land.

"They know this is a valid user group, and if they're going to stop this problem . . . you have to have options for them," he said.

One current option, the New Jersey Off Road Vehicle Park in Chatsworth, Burlington County, was a former strip mine polluted with burned-out cars and trash. The riders, using volunteer labor, helped clean up the site and plant trees. But in 2008, the park will close, and the land will revert to a state forest.

The state Pinelands Commission and the DEP promised to find three new sites for riders by then. One, proposed for somewhere east of the Garden State Parkway, has received a $338,000 federal grant.

Another, for now, is proposed for Sahara Sands, which is 60 percent mined and 40 percent forest, the DEP's Watson said.

Said Freitas: "If the owner wanted to go back in there and mine again . . . he could bulldoze and grade and do anything he wanted in that pit. But as soon as you mention an [ATV] park, they throw up their hands and say it's a habitat for threatened and endangered species."

The state bought the Sahara Sands site in 2005, using $1.2 million in Green Acres funding. Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, said spending that money on an ATV park would be a "diversion" from the fund's mission and require approval from a body known as the State House Commission.

"I think DEP's got its head up a tailpipe," Tittel said. "Look, I'm a skier. Is the state going to go buy me a ski area?"

He said his group could sue to stop the park.

But Watson said the Green Acres funding was not a diversion.

"The Green Acres program is for recreation, and this is certainly recreation," he said. "This is no different than a public marina - and we fund public marinas."

Watson said the DEP planned to outline all the pros and cons of the Monroe park in a public document by spring. The agency then would name a nonprofit group to run the park.

That nonprofit, Watson said, would be responsible for getting approvals from the Pinelands Commission and possibly the two townships bordering the park - Monroe and Buena Vista, Atlantic County.

Then there are the neighbors.

Stahl, who works for Buena Vista's mayor, an opponent of the park, gathered 370 signatures on a petition to block its creation.

"We're not going to just sit there and not do anything," she said. "We save all our money to have a nice place, and they can just come in and destroy it."

Akers, the administrator of the Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association, said he objected to the characterization of the Monroe site as a "barren moonscape."

He said the state's own data, which he consulted, showed the existence of threatened species there, such as the barred owl and the tree frog, which he heard on the land.

"They're pretty loud, and they honk like a goose, so you can't mistake them for another species," he said.

Watson said threatened and endangered species were all over the state, including in areas where illegal riding was happening.

"We selected this site because it's a former mine," he said. "It's a disturbed site. It's not a pristine site."

Akers and other opponents said that opening a park in Monroe wouldn't stop illegal riding because people would tire of paying fees and waiting in line.

They said the state needed strong enforcement to register ATVs and discourage illegal riding - a position the DEP also takes.

Freitas said his group also supported more registration and licensing of ATVs and safety and environmental training for riders.

But he said the only law proposed on the matter would carry draconian penalties for illegal riding and didn't address the need for legal parks.

"The problems are only being compounded right now," Freitas said. "The whole purpose of this legislation is to scare people into not buying an ATV or dirt bike."

If given a choice, he said, most enthusiasts would ride legally.

Akers just doesn't think that will happen in Monroe, given the species on that site.

"It's going to be an uphill fight, and it's going to require the DEP and the Pinelands Commission to bend the crap out of their own rules," he said.