Wharton State Forest battles against illegal dumping

Those wandering the trails of Wharton State Forest looking to capture pictures of foliage and breathtaking views may unfortunately have tires, toilets and other garbage in those photographs as the battle against illegal dumping in the park rages on.

“It’s pretty widespread throughout all our parks in the state, especially the larger wooded areas. Wharton is certainly one of them,” state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Bob Considine said. “It’s an ongoing battle definitely.”

So far this year, the DEP has received 22 reports of illegal dumping in state parks and forests. Considine said that number is on par with the usual 20–30 reports the department receives annually. He also said the number of reports doesn’t fluctuate much from year to year and cannot be attributed to any specific trends. Obviously, those numbers do not account for the dumping that goes unreported.

“Managing such large areas that are hundreds or thousands of acres like Wharton is a challenge. With so many dirt roads running through the forest, it’s impossible for park police and staff to monitor everything that goes on,” Considine said. “And the dirt roads are necessary as they act as firebreaks throughout Wharton.”

A firebreak is a gap in vegetation or other combustible material that acts as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of a wildfire. Firebreaks may occur naturally, such as a river or lake, but they can also be man-made, and many also serve as roads, a four-wheel drive trail or a highway. Considine said that anything found is searched for shipping labels or any evidence of who may have left the trash. According to Considine, people other than park staff often make reports of illegal dumping.

“Many times, we receive word from patrons who are just walking or enjoying the park. It’s a combination of citizens and park employees that witness people illegal disposing of trash,” Considine said.

The average minimum fine for a person or business caught dumping is $2,000 while the average maximum is $50,000. Penalties can reach $250,000 per day if the materials found are hazardous. Considine says the DEP is not alone in its efforts to keep Wharton free of trash and looking its best.

“Volunteer groups regularly schedule times to come into the park and do a clean-up project. We appreciate the efforts of those in the local community figuring out ways to help out as well as donating their time and effort,” Considine said.

On Oct. 27, the Pine Barrens 4Wheel Drive Cleanup was held in Shamong for the 12th consecutive year. The annual event brings hundreds of people and their trucks to the area all with the purpose of cleaning up the forest. People from Burlington as well as neighboring Atlantic, Camden and Gloucester counties filled dumpsters and countless trucks with tires, shingles, piping and other garbage. According to Considine, the DEP is doing what it can to ensure the volunteers’ work isn’t for nothing.

“The DEP does its own cleanups in addition to those done by volunteers, so we get frustrated when more dumping takes place,” Considine said. “We are in the midst of creating new strategies to counteract and catch the offenders.”