Little New Jersey can be proud that almost a fifth of the state is permanently protected natural land with a mandated management plan. That land, its wildlife and other resources provide residents with recreation, cleaner air and water, and relief from urban anxieties.
The state is also the most crowded in the nation and has two major cities perched on its borders. That presents special challenges to managing its natural lands.
A new one has arisen in the age of social media, which has enabled large crowds to descend on former gravel pits for illegal swimming parties. People take their four-wheel-drive vehicles into the sandy wilds of the Pine Barrens, destroying fragile natural areas, ignoring state officers and access restrictions, and putting themselves at great risk of drowning in the former quarries.
The Department of Environmental Protection has sought a better and more permanent approach to natural lands management for decades with limited success. In 2015, it announced that it would close half the dirt routes traditionally used by off-road motor vehicles in the 190-square-mile Wharton State Forest. Then it decided to leave nearly all 500 miles open, to beef up enforcement and to seek the cooperation of users.
Now it has taken a hard line again, but a focused one. Last month, the DEP closed parts of five Wildlife Management Areas in the pinelands to all users — even hikers and birdwatchers. The closures will last until Sept. 15 and there will be public hearings on the rules this summer.
Among the closings are 360 acres of Cedar Lake WMA in Atlantic County’s Buena Vista Township and Monroe Township in Gloucester County. The entire 474-acre Menantico Ponds WMA in Millville is closed as well. Violators face fines of $50 to $1,500.
We usually err on the side of allowing as much legal use of natural lands as possible and enforcing rules as needed. DEP officials probably feel the same way, but in this case it’s not possible to keep people safe and protect the natural environment given the great appeal of misuse of the former quarry ponds.
Too many people have drowned in the ponds, which quickly drop off to great depths and temperatures that can impair swimmers. Sensitive natural areas can’t host crowds and their vehicles without unacceptable damage. And mob defiance of enforcement officials is simply intolerable.
The targeted closures should enable more effective enforcement. Social media works both ways, so reports of tickets and arrests should deter crowds from illegal gatherings.
This too, however, is another small and temporary strategy in the larger challenge to balance public use and damaging misuse of natural lands. Finding that will take years, maybe decades, and meanwhile these DEP closures will save lives and wildlife habitat.