On August 29th, I visited the Gull Lake and Chub Pond trails in the Black River Wild Forest. I photographed all sorts of trail and wetland damage from All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) use on these trails. ATVs are not allowed on these trails, but the Black River Wild Forest area has a history of illegal ATV use, and I thought that the damage to these trails reflected more of the same.
I had received reports about ATV damage in this part of the Forest Preserve earlier this year. The previous week I had spent time in the Ferris Lake Wild Forest inventorying trail damage from ATVs and photographing ATV side-routes around various barrier gates put up by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). It appeared that the damage to the Chub Pond and Gull Lake trails was also caused by illegal trespass. The usual telltale signs of illegal trespass and recreational riding were evident.
When I posted pictures and the accounts (here and here) of my visits, I was corrected. It turns out that a good deal of the ATV damage to these trails was sustained during a search and rescue operation in July that involved scores of DEC staff and many volunteers. An 84-year-old man was lost in the Black River Wild Forest area of the Forest Preserve for five days, but was found and rescued.
Around the west side of Gull Lake there was lots of string and flagging in trees alongside the trail. There were places where new side ATV trails had been cut, leading from the main trail. Tree stumps were evident where the search effort necessitated tree cutting to provide easy access to the area for search teams. I did not include these sections in my accounts as they clearly seemed to be part of an organized search effort.
The ATV damage to the western part of the Gull Lake trail and the Chub Pond trail had all the signs of illegal trespass. ATV side-trails were visible around DEC barrier gates. Signs were up stating no ATV use, but they are sometimes posted in places subject to illegal trespass. In many places these trails had been widened to 20-30 feet as ATV riders sought to avoid large mud holes created by prior ATV use. In places where the trail passed through a wetland, the narrow foot trail route of stepping stone and corduroy logs had been obliterated in a swamp of mud and deep ruts filled with a stew of thick green algae. In other places side trails had been created by ATVs leaving the trails altogether for an easier route around damaged areas. In many places, mud troughs several feet deep and wide were created from sustained use of ATVs crashing through them. These trails were difficult to hike and impossible to mountainbike in many places.
It never occurred to me that this level of damage could have been caused by state officials. I’m told that the damage from illegal ATV use on these trails was significant before the search effort, yet much of the damage to these trails visible today is from the search effort. DEC has not published a schedule for rehabilitation of these heavily damaged trails.
What the whole incident shows is that ATV use is wholly inappropriate for the Forest Preserve. Many are pushing for ATVs to be allowed for public recreational use on the Forest Preserve. Many are pushing for open access for even bigger Utility Track Vehicles (UTVs) on the Forest Preserve.
If trails can be destroyed by ATV use under the supervision of DEC professional staff, nothing better illustrates why ATVs should never be allowed in the Forest Preserve for recreational use.
DEC will say that this was a matter of life and death. In this light, any damage to the Forest Preserve is irrelevant and inconsequential. I agree. Clearly search and rescue teams had to be transported as quickly and deeply into the Forest Preserve as possible at a point where every hour was critical. The longer one is lost, the greater the chances of severe injury or death.
The Adirondack environmental community has never opposed use of motor vehicles in the Forest Preserve during emergencies.
Yet, the residual ATV damage plainly evident today on these trails in the Black River Wild Forest area provides those of us who think about Forest Preserve management with a teachable moment. The lesson here is that recreational use of ATVs is incompatible with Forest Preserve protection and stewardship. These machines should only be used for emergency situations and should never be allowed for public recreational use.
Neither the DEC nor the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) have ever been able to muster the political courage to state that ATVs are prohibited on the Forest Preserve as a public management policy or to codify this policy in official rules and regulations. It’s high time that they do so.
Photos: Above, ATV damage to the Gull Lake Trail, Black River Wild Forest; and below, ATV damage to the Chub Pond Trail, Black River Wild Forest.