That 250 avid ATV riders showed up at a Agency of Natural Resources hearing in Montpelier on Tuesday to lobby for access to state lands for trail riding is a testament to those particular individuals’ passion for the sport, not public support of the idea. Nor did the 250 riders represent an unusually large number, considering there are16,000 registered ATVs in Vermont and another 32,000 that are illegally unregistered.
What the hearing did demonstrate is that there is an avid constituency within the state and there is little doubt that over the years they will be trying to promote the sport and benefit as much from free access to state lands as possible.
But ATV riders have notable obstacles to overcome that are unique to the sport and are not all that compatible with other uses of state lands.
First, ATVs are inordinately destructive to the landscape and loud. They run on knobby tires powered by a lot of horsepower that rips up the terrain. That’s the appeal, just like it is with motorcycle dirt bikes, snowmobiles and jet skis. Going fast over the respective terrain provides the thrill, which is not to say it’s not also enjoyable to just be out in the wilderness enjoying the scenery — but one can’t be separated from the other.
Secondly, the terrain sought by ATVs riders is wilderness. Unlike jet-skis, which go over bodies of water and cause almost no damage, or snowmobiles, which ride on top of a surface that leaves little lasting impact, ATVs require trails that scar the earth with wide, unmistakable cuts that remain for years.
Thirdly, ATVs are active at a time of year that competes with many other uses of state lands by residents and tourists seeking a much different experience. The backcountry of the state forests or wilderness areas are mainly used by hikers, mountain bikers, fishermen, hunters or trail runners looking to enjoy the quiet solitude Vermont’s backcountry offers. Allowing ATVs on such trails would be disastrous and not even being discussed at this stage; but even cutting trails for ATVs within earshot of such hiking trails would be detrimental to the wilderness experience. Just as motorcycle dirt bikes are not allowed on backcountry trails, the use of ATVs in such areas would seem to be counterproductive to the state’s best interest.
That does not mean, however, that some accommodation cannot be made. Specialized tracts of state lands for ATV use could be one solution. Allowing connecting trails that cross state lands to existing ATV trails may make sense in some sections of the state, which was the specific reason the hearing was called in Montpelier. And commercial landholders, such as owners of larger commercial tracts of forest, may find it profitable to base ATV camps and recreational trails on their private lands.
As this discussion proceeds, what’s imperative for all Vermonters to keep in mind (particularly ardent environmentalists) is that ATV riders are not inherently bad; that the ATV industry — like the snowmobile industry — could be an important part of the state’s tourism mix; and that there is likely enough land in Vermont to accommodate existing wilderness use and some limited ATV use. What ATV riders must keep in mind is that their sport is not compatible with the wilderness experience of others and they must respect that limitation. That said, the appropriate legislative committees should embrace the challenge of carving out an appropriate niche for ATVs with open arms and open minds.
-Angelo S. Lynn