I know snowmobiles are controversial here, but I don’t know much about them. Back in the Mid Atlantic, I think one guy in our entire county had a snowmobile, and once every winter it might precipitate enough for him to pull it out and lap his house a few times before putting it away for another year. It worked for him.
But I do know a lot about all-terrain vehicles and their big brothers that seat multiple people and have enough cargo space to haul the entire Imelda Marcos Memorial Shoe Collection. (Imelda, if you’re not dead, my apologies; I didn’t have time to look it up.)
So I offer my services as an expert witness to a large group of public-interest groups — from greens to health officials to consumer watchdogs — who wrote the state this week urging lawmakers to be aware of the impact of expanded ATV use, an idea that is apparently being floated in motorsport circles. The letter states, in part, “The undersigned organizations write to oppose any proposals seeking expanded All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) riding without first enacting long-needed reforms. Continuing risks and challenges associated with inappropriate ATV riding threaten New York’s environment, the public health and safety of its residents and visitors, State Parks and other state lands, and the economic viability of rural communities that depend on clean air, clean water, and a peaceful character to foster tourism.”
Coming from an area where they swarmed like flies, and were always trying to encroach on restricted state lands, I understand the concern. I do hate to be a buzzkill, because I know people really get off on riding these things, but — well, sorry. I’ll just chance losing my Hooters VIP pass.
Back in the Western Maryland/Eastern West Virginia region, if you owned more than a half-acre of ground you were more or less expected, if not required, to have an ATV, because Lord knows, you can’t be expected to carry your own hoe down to the tomato patch.
This is not, obviously, a strictly geographic phenomenon; the first two guys who saw our property in Jay independently said the same thing: You’re going to want an ATV. ATVs also inspire the admitted animal magnetism that draws men to machines. I have noticed that I can quite literally see no one around our place for days, but if I fire up a chainsaw, all of a sudden guys will suddenly start materializing out of thin air: “So you got a chainsaw there, huh? Gonna be doin’ some cuttin’?
No, this is how I shave.
Then for the next 40 minutes they will talk about their own saws, how many hours they had on them before they had to be rebuild the engines, gas-to-oil ratios and all kinds of things that they (not knowing that I am a writer) assume I will understand.
Men and boys, myself included, cannot always help this ATV, hold-my-beer, consciousness, even though it is a mentality that is not entirely stable. I recall the time when a bunch of us country boys would play “chicken” in the forests that we had not yet learned to adequately appreciate. The game went like this: Someone would throw a match into the dry leaves, and a ring of us would watch the flames expand, faster and faster, to the point where they bordered on being out of control. Whoever gave in first and frantically stomped out the fire was the chicken.
Clear as day, I remember one of my friends coming to school on a Monday, and he had one of these blue jean jackets with the faux shearling lining. And the lining was all black and charred because he was the chicken. The kid went on to be a State Senator. I am not making this up.
There were no ATVs as yet, but there were dirt bikes and Broncos and International Scouts that operated on the same mud-intoxicated principle. When ATVs came along, they were naturally folded into the mix. And in this capacity, I know two things about ATVs: One, they are indeed quite fun, and two, they are as destructive as hell.
In fact, destruction is kind of the point. ATVers want the mud and the ruts and the bogs and the dust and the noise because that’s what the sport is. It doesn’t mean that it is in any way evil, or that the people who enjoy the sort are in any way wrong; it just means that you can’t logically allow ATVs within a million miles of any place where the goal is the respect, and the protection of nature.
I have listened patiently to people who tell me that ATV trails can be sustainable and environmentally sound, and I am sure that such trails do exist. But as the Corb Lund song about nondrinking Mormons goes, “I ain’t seen ’em yet and my maw ain’t neither.” Every ATV trail I have ever come across is a holy mess.
In a park where we are studiously and rightly concerned about the detrimental effects of foot traffic, it serves to remember that one ATV is equivalent to 10,000 feet. Wheels spin, dufffies, ruts are created, water seeps in and in a heartbeat a lovely forest floor erodes into a Tough Mudder contest.
It is also difficult to take seriously talk of responsible ATV use, when illegal trespass on sensitive and protected ecosystems is almost worn like a badge of honor among so many of the participants. Rewarding bad behavior with increased access is unlikely to satiate those who believe forests were created to be stripped of their elegance, or that their own personal right to yee-haw to high heaven trumps the rights of thousands who have fought so diligently for natural sanctuaries. With a hive of ATVs, years’ worth of protections can be shredded in a single summer.
There is room, of course, for both, and if the state wants to find, foster and promote suitable ATV lands, I think that’s great. But if indeed a toe is being poked by the industry into protected state forests, it seems to me that objections must be raised. If we are not protecting wildlands from the environmental carnage of ATVs, what exactly are we protecting them from?
Photo: ATV user rides through a posted wetland in 2010.