Lawmakers Have Tough Questions About ATVs On State Land

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(Host) A legislative committee had tough questions for the state’s top environmental official over a proposal that would allow all-terrain vehicles to cross state land.

The Douglas administration drafted the ATV rule last summer. But lawmakers are looking at whether the proposal goes beyond the administration’s legal authority.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) The first thing Senator Mark MacDonald told the Statehouse audience was that his committee members will not be voting on whether they like or dislike ATVs.

MacDonald chairs the Legislature’s committee on administrative rules. He pointed out that the panel has a very narrow, legal, focus. When the administration proposes a rule, MacDonald said the committee looks to see if it follows the intent of the law, or if it’s arbitrary and exceeds the authority granted in statute.

(MacDonald) "We take a look at the homework assignment that the administration does, which is to write the rules. We make sure they have done the assignment that they were supposed to do."

(Dillon) The Douglas administration rule would allow up to three ATV trails on state land to connect to existing trail networks. The proposal is controversial. The state received roughly 2,000 letters and emails, with comments running about 4 to 1 against the idea.

Natural Resources Secretary Jonathan Wood said the impetus for the rule change was a proposal from an ATV club in Island Pond. Wood said the club wants to use a short strip of state land to link about 30 miles of existing trails and town roads where the machines are allowed.

(Wood) "It’s totally consistent with how we manage other motorized and non-motorized recreation in the state. It’s going to focus on an extremely narrow, and extremely limited aspect of public land."

(Dillon) But Newfane Representative Richard Marek questioned why the state had to write a broad rule to cover such a limited proposal.

(Marek) "Am I incorrect in having read that rule as having no limit on how many trails can be established, ultimately."

(Wood) "Correct."

(Dillon) Wood said the trails on state land would be as short as practically possible. But Marek asked for a map of the private ATV trail system to understand the impact of connecting trails through state property.

(Marek) "I don’t know what that means in terms of any finite distance limit in terms that I can understand sitting here for the number of trails and the distance they could take because I don’t know how big the parcels of state lands are, and where the VASA trails are."

(Dillon) Wood told the committee that the Legislature approved a key piece of the trail proposal last year. He said lawmakers allowed the statewide ATV organization to use funds raised from vehicle registrations to improve town roads and state trails.

(Wood) "This was significant in facilitating what would be necessary under the rule for expenditure of their funds for any potential connector trails on state land."

(Dillon) But the legislature’s environment committees did not review the proposal. Senator MacDonald questioned why – if the law change was significant – the administration failed to testify before the relevant committees on the idea.

MacDonald said the committee would discuss the ATV rule at its meeting later this month.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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