Tom Gilbert, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
It often seems that cities and rural towns have little in common regarding the problems and nuisances they deal with on a daily basis.
But one issue affecting municipalities throughout New Jersey is the increasing illegal use of off-road vehicles – including all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and dirt bikes – by riders with no respect for the environment or public safety.
In rural areas, especially the Pine Barrens, ecologically sensitive lands are being torn apart by illegal use of all-terrain vehicles. Habitats for plants and animals are being harmed, and clean water sources like streams and wetlands are being degraded. Hikers and other recreational users may no longer feel safe in some places.
In urban areas, unregistered and uninsured ATVs and dirt bikes are being driven recklessly and illegally on streets and sidewalks, threatening pedestrians and legal drivers. City officials say ATV and dirt bike riders have been spotted drag racing, weaving through traffic and playing “chicken” with oncoming vehicles.
The problem has reached the point where many New Jersey municipalities are trying to hit the brakes by passing tough new laws to discourage illegal use of ATVs.
A number of municipalities – including Atlantic City, Jersey City, Paterson, Trenton, Absecon, Egg Harbor Township, Pleasantville, Vineland and Hamilton Township (Atlantic County) – have adopted ordinances authorizing police to confiscate illegally ridden ATVs and demolish them. The idea is that seizing and destroying a vehicle worth thousands of dollars is a far stronger deterrent than a mere ticket and a small fine.
These local ordinances were enabled by a new state law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in January 2022 that designates ATVs and dirt bikes ridden on public streets or highways as “contraband” subject to state forfeiture regulations.
A few municipalities are going farther by trying to cut off fuel supplies. For example, Jersey City just introduced an ordinance prohibiting gas stations from dispensing gasoline to dirt bikes and ATVs unless they are being transported by a properly registered vehicle, trailer or truck. Stations that violate the law could be fined up to $2,000. Atlantic City and Paterson have similar gasoline ordinances.
Tough laws and stronger enforcement are needed to control the mayhem. Without them, both public lands and public safety will continue to be at risk.
In Tewksbury Township in Hunterdon County, two horseback riders at a New Jersey Conservation Foundation-owned preserve were recently injured because of a trespassing quad rider. As the quad sped aggressively toward the horseback riders, the horses reared and threw the riders to the ground, seriously injuring one. The driver then sped off and was not caught.
Along the Batona Trail – a 53-mile pedestrian-only footpath traversing the Pine Barrens – hikers have been menaced by illegal ATVs. These vehicles have also damaged the trail, making it less safe and appealing for walkers.
Street-legal four-wheel-drive vehicles, including monster trucks, are another problem. Like ATVs and dirt bikes, they’re not allowed in most parks and preserves. Because of their weight and power, these vehicles are capable of the greatest amount of environmental damage when trespassing.
Unfortunately for New Jersey, monster trucks are often used for a particularly destructive activity known as “mudding,” which consists of drivers tearing through ponds, streams and wetlands, turning them into giant mud puddles incapable of sustaining aquatic life. Hiking trails illegally get widened into “roads” by destroying pristine vegetation.
State forests and public and private conservation lands in the Pine Barrens have been especially hard hit. A special place filled with rare species, including some found nowhere else on Earth, the Pine Barrens has become a favorite destination of mudders.
“Essentially, it’s a large sandbox,” said Dr. Emile DeVito, staff biologist for New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “There are no rocks, and a lot of the vegetation is delicate. Drivers have easily and illegally created their own paths of devastation – many hundreds of miles since these powerful vehicles became popular.”
Municipal ordinances aimed at shutting down illegal ATV riders are all steps in the right direction, but more is needed.
The state spends millions of dollars buying conservation lands to protect wildlife habitat, safeguard drinking water sources, mitigate climate change and provide outdoor recreation.
We need existing law enforcement officers to crack down on violators, and we must invest in more enforcement officers and better policies. For example, Wharton State Forest should close all sand roads that were illegally created, publish a new map of legal roads, and seriously step up enforcement.
The bottom line: ATVs and other illegal off-road vehicles don’t belong in public parks and preserves – or on public streets and sidewalks! And drivers with street-legal vehicles like Jeeps need to stay on existing, legally-created sand roads within parkland.
The “Fix Our Parks” campaign, launched last year by a coalition of conservation groups, advocates for more investments in state-owned parkland, including stronger enforcement against illegal off-road vehicle activity. To learn more about the Fix Our Parks initiative, go to www.fixourparksnj.org/.
And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at email@example.com.