Persistent problems in the pine barrens, such as illegal dumping and all-terrain vehicle use, have prompted local officials to seek greater law-enforcement powers for officers who patrol the state-protected area.
Three part-time compliance officers were hired earlier this year by the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission to monitor for rule-breaking in the environmentally fragile region, which sprawls over 100,000 acres in Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton towns.
But some officials say state law does not make clear whether those officers — and some other law enforcement agencies that patrol the pine barrens — are allowed to crack down on off-road vehicles and illegal dumping.
“It’s like having a jewelry store and leaving the doors wide open,” State Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said.
LaValle and Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket) proposed bills this year that would specifically prohibit ATV use and unauthorized dumping in the pine barrens. The bills also for the first time would allow the pine barrens commission to impose penalties and possibly collect fines for those violations.
Supporters of the move suffered a setback last week when the State Legislature adjourned without voting on the bills. LaValle and Englebright said they would try again when the legislature reconvenes next year.
Englebright said the Assembly bill faced skepticism from lawmakers who questioned why pine barrens officers needed greater enforcement power.
“If we incorporated the whole pine barrens as a single village, we’d have an easier time of getting approval,” he said.
More than two dozen agencies have law enforcement powers in the pine barrens, ranging from federal authorities and state and Suffolk County police to town code enforcement officers.
But not all agencies have the same enforcement powers, leaving some officers to do little more than write reports when they suspect illegal dumping and ATV use, officials said.
Those reports go to the pine barrens commission, which can seek to have charges filed by the state attorney general’s office. That process can be slow and cumbersome — the commission meets once a month, and is not able to act if the board does not have a quorum of four members.
The bills proposed by LaValle and Englebright also would have allowed any officer in the pine barrens to write tickets for dumping and ATV prohibitions.
“It would certainly make potential violators think twice before doing something illegal,” pine barrens commission executive director John Pavacic said.
“We’d like better patrolling of our pine barrens, because we see a lot of the open spaces being abused,” said Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine, one of five members of the pine barrens commission executive board. “We want to preserve the pine barrens in its natural state.”
Supporters say upgrading enforcement powers is even more important because state lawmakers last week approved expanding the pine barrens by more than 1,000 acres. As it is, there are not enough officers to patrol miles upon miles of dirt trails and wilderness, officials said.
“There’s just too many acres to do a regular patrol,” said Michael Sharkey, the sheriff’s office chief of staff.
- Officials say illegal dumping and ATV use are on the rise in the state-protected pine barrens.
- State law does not specifically prohibit off-road vehicle use and unauthorized dumping in the pine barrens’ more than 100,000 acres.
- That leaves officers from some law enforcement agencies unable to write tickets for dumping and ATV use.
- Change state law to outlaw all-terrain vehicles and dumping in the pine barrens.
- Give officers in the pine barrens the power to write tickets for dumping and ATV violations.