By Michele Byers
For those who love nature and wildlife, the New Jersey Pine Barrens are a million acres of incomparable beauty and wilderness in the middle of the heavily-developed East Coast corridor. It’s a region rich in rare plants and animals, some found nowhere else on Earth, and has been designated an international Biosphere Reserve.
Unfortunately for wildlife, the Pine Barrens are also a popular destination for off-road vehicle drivers whose idea of fun is tearing through wetlands, streams, ponds and dunes, turning them into giant mud puddles. There’s even a name for the sport: mudding.
“Pine Mud,” a new documentary by New Jersey filmmaker Jared Flesher, examines the environmental damage caused by off-road vehicles (ORVs) in the Pine Barrens and challenges the state to find a solution.
“The film is meant to raise awareness of the issue, because a lot of people don’t even know it’s an issue,” said Flesher.
“Pine Mud” will be shown at two outdoor screenings in South Jersey this month: the first on Sunday, Oct. 11, on the grounds of the Collingswood Grand Ballroom in Camden County; and the second on Saturday, Oct. 17, at the Franklin Parker Preserve in Chatsworth, Burlington County, in the heart of the Pine Barrens. Both screenings will be followed by an audience Q&A with Jared, and the event at Franklin Parker Preserve will be preceded by sunset hikes with naturalists.
“Pine Mud” got its unofficial start in 2015 when Jared was producing “The Creature Show,” an internet series focusing on the state’s rare wildlife.
He traveled to the Franklin Parker Preserve to shoot an episode on the snakes of the Pine Barrens where New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s biologist, Dr. Emile DeVito, introduced him to endangered northern pine snakes. Many of these gentle snakes – as well as turtles and amphibians – are killed, Emile said, when their underground nests, hibernation sites and other critical habitat are crushed by ORVs.
The following spring, Jared was again in the Pine Barrens for a “Creature Show” episode. This time, he went out with Jason Howell, stewardship coordinator for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, to film Pine Barrens tree frogs, another endangered species.
“We saw all kinds of trash, garbage and tire ruts,” Jared recalled, including damage to vernal ponds that are important breeding grounds for Pine Barrens tree frogs and other species.
By then, the state had proposed a plan to limit ORV access in Wharton State Forest in the Pine Barrens – New Jersey’s largest state forest – but quickly scrapped it in the face of organized opposition by ORV enthusiasts.
It was then that Jared decided a documentary was needed to raise awareness of the harm being done to the landscape and wildlife.
Filmed between 2016 and 2019, “Pine Mud” is told largely through the commentary of Jason Howell and another Pine Barrens native, Mark Demitroff, a local historian and geology professor at Stockton University. The documentary also includes old TV news clips and footage of off-road vehicles gouging deep, muddy ruts on trails through the Pine Barrens.
“There are people coming from Philadelphia, New York and even Virginia who want to go mudding,” Jared said.
These off-roaders are not shy, he noted; and many post videos of their tire-spinning exploits on the internet.
Since completion of the film, Jared said the state has taken some steps to reduce ORV damage in the Pine Barrens, including barriers to block access to ponds and dunes, and increasing enforcement of trespassing laws. But he still believes “an overarching strategic plan” is needed. He hopes “Pine Mud” will become a catalyst for that dialog.
“Do we want the Pine Barrens to become a giant ORV park?” he asks. “Or do we want to treat it like our own national park, which it kind of is? The Pine Barrens belong to the people of the State of New Jersey, and I think we should be planning for a better future.”
“Pine Mud” had been set to premiere in March at an environmental film festival in Washington, D.C., but was canceled due to COVID-19. “Pine Mud” finally got its first screening in August at an outdoor film festival in Princeton.
The two screenings in October will likely be the last until warm weather returns next spring. “This is a really challenging time to share films and live events,” Jared noted. “All of these screenings are socially distanced, and people are asked to wear masks.”
To learn more about “Pine Mud,” watch the film’s trailer and make reservations to attend the October screenings, go to www.pinemud.com.
And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including the Franklin Parker Preserve – visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on protecting the Pine Barrens, visit the Pinelands Preservation Alliance website at www.pinelandsalliance.org.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at email@example.com