It's a trashed expanse of ruts and puddles, a disturbed - and disturbing - moonscape in the midst of Wharton State Forest.

Welcome to what some fans of four-wheeling call "The Quarter Mile" and what photographer Albert D. Horner and others call "The Scar."

This once-lush, now-denuded section of the supposedly protected-in-perpetuity Pinelands National Reserve has morphed into something like a private playground, one where some visitors leave behind smoldering fires, moldering heaps of cheap-beer cans, and environmental desolation.

Rare plants? Endangered species? The rights of the rest of us?

Details, details.

"I want to play in the mud," proclaims the author of a particularly petulant post on Horner's "Pinelands Musings" blog.

Plenty of other folks want to play, too; YouTube displays clips of massive vehicles revving and roaring over the Pinelands' indelible landscape.

With 1.1 million acres (130,000 in the forest) sprawling across the middle of the East Coast megalopolis, the Pinelands attracts four-wheelers from all over.

"It's a hot spot, all right," says Horner, 64, of Medford, as he and longtime environmental advocate Michael Hogan take me on a tour of The Scar.

Near the border of Tabernacle and Shamong Townships in Burlington County, we turn off Route 206 near Atsion Lake and four-wheel a half-dozen miles into the forest, where it's legal to drive only on designated roadways.

Abruptly, the pitch pines recede. We stop where the roller-coaster of a sand road widens into a tundra of blackish mud, and walk on under a blazing blue sky.

Puddles shimmer with the sheen of petroleum. A fiberglass blob (the torched remains of a small boat) squats amid a scattering of cigarette packs and a smattering of fast-food debris. And fresh tire tracks head deeper off-road in several directions.

"There's this very small group that . . . wants to wreck it for everybody," says Hogan, a 49-year-old Bellmawr native who enjoys four-wheeling himself.

Certainly, people can four-wheel in Wharton State Forest without destroying the environment.

Such destruction is "irresponsible and unacceptable," says Pearse Umlauf, vice president of Jeep Jamboree USA, which will hold its 17th annual Pine Barrens gathering Oct. 28 in Hammonton. Last year, 36 vehicles participated in the three-day event.

Only a "small minority" of park visitors are behind the damage, adds Umlauf, who suggests that "motorized recreation" can peacefully coexist with environmental protection. "It's an enforcement issue as well."

Karen Hershey, a spokeswoman for the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, says state police patrols have been stepped up because of the "heavy damage" to the area. "We are doing our best to protect it," she says.

The Scar lies in the heart of "one of the most environmentally sensitive" and ecologically diverse places in the entire Pinelands, Hogan says.

He points out the remains of what had been a natural layer of clay a few paces from the fiberglass blob. The clay formed the bottom of what once was a vernal pool - a seasonal wetland where amphibians and insects, many of them rare, breed.

That was then. And now?

"People come in here and test their vehicles," Hogan says. "They spend $2,000 on tires, and they [modify] the breathers on their differentials so they don't suck the water when they go through the puddles."

I don't get it. But neither do I think the Pinelands should be put off-limits and under glass, like a giant terrarium.

Hogan and Horner don't think so either; they want people to patronize the place.

"But you can't just go in and grind up wetlands," Hogan says. Adds Horner: "They treat it like it's the open range. And it's not."