ATVs on public land subject of public hearing

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(Host) Should all terrain vehicles be allowed to use state land?

That’s the subject of a public hearing tonight in Montpelier. The Agency of Natural Resources stirred up considerable controversy when it proposed a rule that would allow ATV connector trails across state property.

VPR’s John Dillon headed out to Vermont ATV Sportsmen’s Association trails for a tour, and filed this report:

(Dillon) I’m at the trailhead of the VASA trail in Hardwick, and it looks like a beaver dam has washed out and a large ditch has eroded right across the trail. It’s about two feet deep and there’s a strong current flowing right through it and into the river. The trail’s not in good condition to ride, Danny Hale says, and we won’t be riding today. But he explains what this trail is for, and why they want more trails like this on public land.

(Hale1) We have about a thousand acres of private property here on Buffalo Mountain that we have owner permission to use, so this is the primary access from this side of town. All of our trail siting is done for a number of reasons, and one of them is to have it where it’s appropriate. The same would go with the state property. We’re certainly not asking for all state property to be open to ATVs.

(Dillon) ATVs didn’t cause the wash out on this trail, Hale says, although he promises that a local club will soon repair it.

Hale is director of the Vermont ATV sportsmen’s association. The group wants to use public land in order to create a statewide trail network. Hale says his members are looking for short connector trails, not a huge public trail system. And he says opening up the state land will discourage illegal riding on public property.

(Hale) Unfortunately there’s a fair amount of illegal use already taking place on state land. And what we’re trying to accomplish with a managed trail system is give people a chance to recreate where it’s legal, so that’s going to take a large number of the illegal riders right out of the picture..

(Dillon) Natural Resources secretary Jonathan Wood agrees. VASA is funded through registration fees and fines. And Wood says the association has shown it can police its own members.

(Wood) And by providing for a statewide trail system, that will give the illegal riders a place to go, and it also funds the enforcement of illegal riding on other lands.

(Dillon) Anthony Iarrapino is a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation. He questions whether the proposal to allow ATVs on state land will actually limit illegal or off trail riding.

(Iarrapino) A significant percentage of ATV users say the enjoyment for them in the activity is riding off trail. And I know that’s not true for all ATV riders but I think VASA and ANR really bear the burden of showing they can get a handle on illegal use before we expose more of our public lands to more of the destructive behavior that comes from illegal use.

(Dillon) Environmentalists say problems can include destruction of wetlands and rutted trails that wash silt into streams. Iarrapino says the agency’s internal records show deep concern at the staff level about ATV access to public land.

(Iarrapino) I think one of the ANR staff members put it best when she said not to beat a dead horse but why are we even  talking about expanding ATV trail use when we haven’t been able to get a handle on illegal trail use?

(Dillon) The proposed rule is not the first time that the Douglas Administration has considered allowing ATV use on a public lands. In 2004, a broad-based task force appointed by the governor failed to reach agreement on whether the policy should be changed.

Jamey Fidel is forest program director is with the Vermont Natural Resources Council. He was a member of the 2004 collaborative, which could not come to consensus on the state lands issue.

(Fidel) There was consensus on a host of other recommendations, including raising registration fees to pay for more enforcement, looking at increasing the penalties which were not deterring illegal use. The state is really promoting the most controversial issue that was addressed by the collaborative and has left unaddressed all the other recommendations that the collaborative put forward.

(Dillon) But Agency Secretary Wood says the state has stepped up enforcement. He said it’s time to give ATV riders a chance.

(Wood) It’s a controversial issue. There are people out there who simply don’t like ATV use but there’s thousands and thousands of ATVs out there that are owned and they have demonstrated that there’s a mechanism for responsible use of those. I think the state has an obligation to help promote responsible use and management of this activity.

(Dillon) The public will get a chance to weigh in for another week by submitting written comments to the agency.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.

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