COAL TOWNSHIP - Dan Machen and the dozens of other members of the North Jersey Jeep Club (NJJC) who rode on AOAA property Sunday appreciate having such a facility relatively close to home for one simple reason: they have just one public off-highway vehicle park to ride at in their home state.

"The only place to legally wheel is in the Pine Barrens," said Machen, NJJC treasurer.

So the 2 1/2 hour trip to eastern Northumberland County isn't such a bad deal. His group arrived starting about 8 a.m. Sunday. After a driver's meeting and waiver signings, some 30 Jeeps hit the trails of the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area, which is being developed on 6,500 acres of Northumberland County owned mountains and abandoned coal lands stretching from Zerbe Township east to Mount Carmel Township.

They ended about 3 p.m., and those who took part in the ride, paying $20 to drive and $10 per passenger, were very impressed with how the park is taking shape.

"This area has so much potential, and it's great to have another area to ride at," said Larry Anderson, of Randolph, N.J. "When we get together, it's like being with family."

That was the case for Jacob Zawistak, of Clifton, N.J., who brought his daughter, Sydney, to Sunday's ride. The 7 year old enjoyed herself, she said, and looks forward to the day she can drive her own Jeep.

"The one we brought today will be her Jeep and I will be getting a new one," her father said.

"It's great to have an area like this, great scenery to look out at and really challenging trails," said Mark Jones, of Virginia, a guest of the club on Sunday. "It's nice to see that the people planning the park welcome us in, so we will keep coming back."

Past trouble

Machen, 41, in a phone interview Friday, acknowledged he heard about the uproar his group was blamed for regarding trail-cutting on AOAA land in late 2011.

He says he was merely following a specific plan laid out by Barry Yorwarth, now one of five members of the AOAA Authority board, and others, and had no idea the work would lead to such outcry. He said a number of clubs were involved, although his had the largest participation.

Even as recently as a few months ago, Bill Knapick and Dave Kaleta, local critics of how the county is developing the AOAA, have again referred to the "illegal" trail cutting.

Yorwarth and others have said no one did anything illegal and that the out-of-state riders who helped do the cutting were being instructed on what to do and where. The issue was reported to the state, however, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) sent a scolding letter and told the county it had to wait for the completion of the Pennsylvania Native Diversity Index (PNDI) before some such work could be done.

PGC and the Department of Conversation and Natural Resources would both later say, however, that they were fully behind the park and the progress the county was making.

Machen remembers being somewhat shocked at the circumstances. He said proper trail maintenance, with conservation in mind, is something he stresses.

He tells others, "If we've going to do it, we've going to do it right, not haphazardly."

He certainly wouldn't want to jeopardize the AOAA, he said.

"We come do the maintenance at the AOAA because they let us play," he said. 'If we do bad and it kills the park, we lose out."

He noted he has testified in court against "bad apples" who ruin things through illegal "wheeling."

Machen, who said he is aware of eight other Jeep clubs in New Jersey alone, said Rausch Creek in Schuylkill County is the only other public park he's aware of that's within a reasonable driving distance. Those in upstate New York or western Pennsylvania are four or five hours away.

When asked to compare the two parks on Sunday, Machen said the AOAA is a much better track because it is a new challenge.

"Since Rausch Creek has been around a while, many of the areas are worn down. The AOAA is fresh and new and we can't wait to come back and see even more progress," he said.

He noted this year will mark the fifth anniversary of a club fundraiser called Wheelers for the Wounded, where NJJC members take wounded veterans on trail rides for the day.