HAMMONTON—An ecotourist is someone who enjoys natural areas and leaves them a better place. There are many areas they can explore in Hammonton including lakes, hiking trails and natural preserves.
The Gazette spoke with Rhyan Grech, the Policy Advocate at the Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA), about outdoor recreation opportunities and the importance of protecting the Pinelands.
“Near Hammonton we have parks and forests. Wharton State Forest is very near Hammonton, as well as Batsto,” Grech said.
Batsto Village is a Revolutionary War-era historic site in the South Central Pinelands of New Jersey. More information can be found on its website at batstovillage.org.
“The nice thing about Batsto is whether you’re interested in history, culture, being outdoors, hiking, bird watching, or stargazing, Batsto kind of has it for you,” Grech said.
Batsto Village is one of many excellent places for new and experienced ecotourists to visit because of the guided tours and nature trails.
“You can go on one of their guided tours there and get some sense of the history of the place,” Grech said.
Grech said Wharton State Forest is the place to go for people who like to hike.
“Wharton State Forest has lots of hiking possibilities. Lots of trails. Horseback riding. There’s lots of great paddling opportunities, either kayak or canoe,” she said.
People who enjoy paddling can bring their kayak or canoe to the Hammonton Lake, or there’s also Atsion Lake, which is 12 minutes from Hammonton.
Pinelands Adventures, which is part of the PPA, is located across from Atsion Lake.
“It’s our education and recreation arm…it’s a kayak/canoe service. You can rent a kayak or canoe from them and they’ll drop you off. You can go to Atsion Lake and paddle there or in different spots along the rivers in the area,” Grech said.
Pinelands Adventures also runs guided nature and cultural tours. Grech said although paddling is a “warmer weather” activity, it’s also available in the cooler seasons in the spring and fall.
“One really nice thing about the Pinelands is that seasonally, everything looks very different, so you have different blooming seasons for different flowers. There is an incredible number of wildflowers within the Pinelands,” she said.
The wild orchids, for example, bloom at different times, which changes the landscape.
“The wildlife is even different [through] the year. The major bird migration happens in the spring and then in the fall. You can see different birds depending on the time of the year,” Grech said.
The wintertime is another great time catch beautiful landscapes in the Pinelands.
“If you’re willing to bundle up, the wintertime is incredible. To see, when it gets really cold, the partially frozen lake or in the snow you’ve got some plants will have their bright red berries in the wintertime. You’ve got that pop of color. Again, you have our birds that stick around here all winter, so that’s great to look at. There’s really something for everybody,” Grech said.
When the weather is warm, Grech said to be prepared for the bugs in the Pinelands.
“There are mosquitos. There are chiggers and ticks. So that’s another huge pro for going in the early spring where maybe if it’s a little cooler, you’re not going to have to deal with those levels of bugs. That’s my favorite time to get out on the trails,” Grech said.
Being in nature also comes with health benefits.
“There [are] lower stress hormones released in our body,” Grech said.
During the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many people turned to the outdoors to gather safely because there’s less risk of transmitting the virus, Grech added.
“Being outdoors, you have much less risk of transmitting the virus. Also just the stress of the last two years, I don’t think we fully understand yet all of the implications of this pandemic and how it has affected all of us.
“And not everybody is a hiker who is going to lace up the boots and go out into the woods for hours and hours and hours. That’s not everybody’s deal, but the Pinelands has places where you can go and picnic and you can have a nice outdoor lunch with your friends or your family. And it’s an opportunity to get out, see people, and like I said it’s a lower risk for the virus. I think we have really seen during this pandemic especially how critical the Pinelands are,” she said.
The Pinelands is important for everyone’s health because it sits on top of the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, where people get their drinking water.
“There are about 17 trillion gallons of pristine water there, and more than a million people get their drinking water from this aquifer,” Grech said.
She said it’s one of the many reasons it’s important to protect the natural resources of the Pinelands.
“We need the clean drinking water, and this aquifer is extremely shallow. Anytime you’re out in the Pinelands and you see a stream or wetlands, that is the aquifer. That’s where the aquifer has broken the surface, so it’s very susceptible to any kind of level of pollution getting into it and obviously, if it’s polluted, it can spread,” Grech said.
The PPA wants to make sure everyone can enjoy the Pinelands, so they’re currently working with Disability Rights NJ and Hopeworks to make nature more accessible for people with disabilities.
“This is a program that we are working with partners to look at, to really examine the challenges that people who identify as disabled experience within the Pinelands,” Grech said.
On April 6, 2021 and September 14, 2021, the PPA held virtual town halls to gather feedback from the community.
“We and our partners wanted to hear—from the experiences of both people with disabilities but also their caretakers in a lot of cases—what the challenges are. What places in the Pines are not accessible? And what types of things would make a difference, would help [the area] become more accessible? So that’s what we’re looking at now,” Grech said.
The PPA wants to hear from people of different backgrounds and ethnicities about barriers they may face when it comes to accessing the Pinelands. A survey can be found on the PPA’s website at pinelandsalliance.org/explore-the-pinelands/pinelands-events-and-programs/virtual-town-hall-on-nature-accessibility/.
“We want to understand better: what are those barriers and what can our role be in breaking down those barriers and making sure that the Pinelands are accessible to everybody,” Grech said.
She noted that some facilities are accessible under the American Disabilities Act standard. Those that meet the standard might have, for example, paved trails for people with mobility issues, or accessible restrooms.
Grech said the best way for people to care about and work to protect the Pinelands is for people to experience the Pinelands.
“Once people experience and care about it and want to do more to protect it, there are tons of ways. They can always reach out to us. We have a lot of volunteer opportunities at PPA,” Grech said.
Volunteer opportunities include trash cleanups, plantings, creating new trails and attending local council meetings.
Another way to advocate for the Pinelands is to attend Pinelands Commission meetings, which are held once a month remotely.
“The Pinelands commissioners need to absolutely hear from members of the public about the job they’re doing, what people want to see them do to protect the Pines,” Grech said.
For more information about the Pinelands, visit the PPA’s website at pinelandsalliance.org and the Pinelands Commission website nj.gov/pinelands.
This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory (CivicStory.org) and the NJ Sustainability Reporting project (SRHub.org).