The Douglas administration has proposed a rule change that would permit All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) to travel on state lands — parks, forests, and wildlife management areas. These lands are now closed to ATVs, as are federal lands in Vermont like the Green Mountain National Forest.
Ironically this proposal to open state lands to expanded ATV abuse comes at a time when most other states and the federal government are either banning ATVs outright, or attempting to greatly restrict their use. Why would Vermont go in the opposite direction?
If the administration had talked to more of the public or done its homework, it would have discovered that many states and federal agencies are trying desperately to restrict the growing off road vehicles (ORVs) threat. For instance, New Jersey banned off-road riding by ATVs on all state park, forest and wildlife lands. Why? Because of a growing awareness that ATVs create unacceptable resource damage, increase conflicts with other public lands users, and that restriction on use is impossible to enforce. Currently in New York State there is legislation proposing to ban ATVs on the forest preserve and other state lands for the same reasons.
Just a few years ago, the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire came out against opening up these federal lands to ATV use.
The forest concluded that ATVs caused unacceptable damage to other resources, and that the agency did not have the funds or manpower to mitigate damage or enforce route restrictions. Rather than allow a use that would be impossible to regulate, the agency rightly concluded not to open forest lands to ATV use. But the problem isn't just local. The former chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Dale Bosworth, called ORVs/ATVs one of four major threats to Forest Service lands nationally and urged all national forests to update travel management plans so as to reduce/manage or prohibit ATV use.
It's not just federal agencies that are alarmed by the growing ATV threat. A survey of state wildlife agencies by the Isaak Walton League found no agency personnel disagreed with the statement "that ORVs negatively impact hunting and habitat in your state?" And 83 percent said that ORVs did resource damage to wildlife habitat.
A committee of the state legislature of New Mexico released a review of ATV use this winter and concluded that, among other things, "Off-road vehicle recreation on public lands increases user conflicts between motorized recreationists and other recreationists and public land users, including ranchers, hunters and anglers." And that these "conflicts tend to be one-sided, with motorized recreationists being less adversely affected and other public land users more adversely affected."
Contrary to assertions by ATV proponents that their use of public lands "benefits" the economy, the New Mexico study found that "ORV recreation incurs substantially higher costs per participant due to natural resource damage, trail maintenance, enforcement, and accident and injuries. The cost of displacement of non-motorized recreationists (including tourists) due to conflicts with ORV recreationists … could be significant in terms of the loss of economic and associated benefits."
In other words, ATVs drive away other users of the land, and this, combined with the higher costs of enforcement, fixing resource damage, and accidents/injuries, means that expanding ORV use of public lands has a net negative economic impact.
There is an outlaw mentality that pervades ATV users' behavior and it's not just a few riders as proponents suggest. The New Mexico report noted that "studies show that roughly half of ATV and motorcycle riders prefer to ride off of designated routes" and that enforcement was nearly impossible. Indeed, one study in Colorado found that the majority of ORV riders regularly flaunted authorities by riding off of designated routes. Another Utah study found that of the ATV riders surveyed, 49.4 percent prefer to ride off established trails, while 39 percent did so in their last outing.
In 2004, state lands director Mike Fraysier wrote to a governor's study committee on ATVs, "As you know, state lands in every district are seeing increased illegal ATV use. With this use comes extensive damage and impacts." Fraysier went on to write: "How can the Agency, in good conscience, open up its lands to ATVs in light of such abuse?"
How indeed? Some behaviors are just not acceptable in public places. We don't allow smoking in public airports, schools, or restaurants. And we don't allow boom boxes in our libraries. Most of us would never allow ATVs to tear up our yards and lawns. Why should we permit ATVs to destroy our public spaces?
Vermont should just say no to ATVs. Keep the riders and their impacts on private lands, but let's protect our public lands for appropriate and compatible uses.
George Wuerthner lives in Richmond. He is the editor of Thrillcraft — the environmental consequences of motorized recreation, published by Vermont's own Chelsea Green Publishing.MORE IN Commentary
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