Sunday, March 11, 2018

Tim Rowland: ATVs and Adirondack Wildlands

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.

Related Stories

Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

Tags: ,

24 Responses

  1. geogymn says:

    ATVs are a great tool and they have many great attributes ( think of for carrying a bucket of saplings and shovel for forest regeneration) but any motor will distinguish a wildness experience, its absolute.

  2. Boreas says:


    I agree with you. I hiked, hunted, and camped in a private woodland in PA for perhaps 20 years before ATVs were introduced to the forest. The only time you would see tracks of others was in the snow and occasionally in a mud puddle. Within 6 months of people riding ATVs there, the narrow, serene game trails I spent many hours walking were turned into 10 foot wide hog wallows. My father said 20 years after the landowner posted the land and blocked most access for ATVs, that the mudholes and trail damage was still obvious – even on upland areas with good drainage. He also said, despite being posted, that the miscreants still occasionally got onto the trails and dug them up.

    I don’t have much good to say about unrestricted ATV use on protected public lands.

  3. Todd Eastman says:

    Keep the damn things out of State Lands!

  4. Rich Frischmann says:

    Thanks and a thumbs up.

  5. Melissa Heshmat says:

    By the time I got to the third paragraph, I said to my husband, “Hahaha! This guy’s not from around here!” Okay, you live in the valley just out in front of us, so you’re a “local” now, but you have a wicked sense of humor, unlike most locals, and I for one very much appreciate it. I found your article well written AND humorous. Yes, I also agree that the minute ATVs are allowed in protected areas, those areas are gonners. Done. Finished. We own and use two very large ATVs in order to do work on our property, dragging downed trees for the woodshed, carting around large amounts of mulch and dirt for the gardens, snow plowing, driving the half mile out to the road to get the mail if we had a mailbox, etc. But we do not allow people to joy-ride ATVs on our property in order to protect it, so why would we allow or want them in the protected zones? It’s a ludicrous idea at best.

  6. Scott says:

    There is a small percentage of every outdoor activity that break the laws. That percentage of ATVs can do a lot of damage. If you have enough motivated dedicated state forest rangers, they can keep illegal state land ATV use to a minimum.

    • Boreas says:

      True. However, DEC personnel are very expensive. There are a LOT of state lands to patrol – most of which are under-patrolled at this stage. I don’t see Albany dramatically increasing DEC numbers to allow sufficient patrolling now, let alone adding significantly more ATV patrolling to their duties.

  7. Lakechamplain says:

    Great and timely article. I’ll bet this might seem extreme to some ATV enthusiasts who will assure us tree huggers that ‘they’ are responsible users and hey, how about that elderly or disabled person who wants access to the wilderness.
    Buy none of it, continue to be ‘extreme’. I could go on a major rant here about the genuine threat these machines cause to the Adirondack wilderness but for now will accede to this well-written piece by a person who has seen both sides of this coin.
    ATV’s and their ‘offspring’ have the capability, under the guise of recreation, to destroy, and I mean destroy, the wilderness for both the animals that inhabit it and the humans that wish to use it in an appreciative and re-usable way.
    Of all the debates about how the Adirondacks are going to be ‘used’ this is the most important one.

    • S. Kahrs says:

      Every State legislator that is considering to allow ATV’s access to protected lands should first be required to hike the Fishkill Ridge preserve in Dutchess County. The Fishkill Ridge has been transformed into a filthy, beer can infested, mud pit from the relentless attack on the environment from the operators of ATV’s. No longer can an individual walk the ridge without the constant noise pollution from motorized vehicles drowning out the calls of nature. The operators of these vehicles continually bring in items, such as beer cans and bottles, pork rind wrappers, and wood stoves (yes wood stoves!) and casually deposit them on the trails. This “preserve” is no longer a preservation of
      nature for the public but it has evolved into a glorified raceway for motorized mud wrestling enthusiasts. Don’t let the same thing happen to the Adirondacks!

      • Dennis says:

        My only hiking experience on public lands where ATV’s were permitted was about seven years ago in the Taconics. As we hiked up a to a summit (I can’t remember the name, near Greylock) a lone ATVer passed us as he descended. When we got near the top, we were horrified and disgusted. Huge water-filled ruts and fire pits filled with empty beer bottles. There were literally cases of empty beer bottles left in this area. It was a putrid mess. I have no doubt that the exact same result would unfold in the ADKs. And the Governor’s proposed budget, as always, will keep the number of DEC Forest Rangers flat for the umpteenth time. And many ADK environmental groups declare victory regarding what’s happening at Boreas but are afraid to direct a critical word towards to the Governor regarding forest ranger staffing. Bland and vague statements don’t count.

  8. Lynne Berry says:

    I own one…I use it witiin s campground only. This writer is right!

  9. Tom Stuart Sr says:

    Totally agree Tim. If they want to rut up there own private land, great. But stay
    out of the wild state land. It is to beautiful and precious. Also God’s Country.

  10. James Bullard says:

    Totally agree and Imelda Marcos is still living.

  11. John Sheehan says:

    Great article Tim! Thank you.

    For anyone who wants to send a message to state government about ATVs, you can use the following link provided by the Adirondack Council. There is an action alert at this location too:

  12. t prevost says:

    I spend my winters in western NY (farm country). The local farmers and land owners have a constant hassle with keeping ATVers off their land. Even on posted land, they beat up crops, take down fences, and roil the spring freshets. The $50 trespass fine means little to them. The destruction costs farmers $1000s. Most ATVers want the challenge of mud, ruts, and hill climbs. If they wanted smooth road conditions, they would use a car.

  13. Paul says:

    Is anyone suggesting that we allow ATV operation on state owned lands in the Adirondacks? It’s illegal.

  14. Charlie S says:

    Lakechamplain says:” I could go on a major rant here about the genuine threat these machines cause to the Adirondack wilderness…”

    You shouldn’t have to Lakechamplain and the DEC should not have to be reminded how bad of an idea this is but let us not be surprised if suddenly the DEC jumps out and seeks public opinion on new proposals to allow atv use in certain areas of the Adirondacks.

    • Paul says:

      Where on public land is this being considered? Again, I think this is currently a solution seeking a problem that shouldn’t exist as long as we enforce the laws we currently have. There have been suggestions of some ATV use on easement land, that is private land. In many cases what was opened for ATV use on easements has since been closed, why not report on that?

      Why are environmental groups not opposed to snowmobile use on Forest Preserve lands?

      • Scott says:

        Paul, you are correct that offroad ATV use is already illegal. And the DEC draft ATV policy will not allow DEC roads or trails to be designated for ATV use except certain places under disability permit. There are places on state land where certain town highway right of ways are designated for ATV use but other motor vehicle use is already allowed on these roads so the ATV use really isn’t an issue. Two years ago one town in the southwestern part of the Adks opened portions of its town roads to ATV use, and these are roads that already allowed motor vehicle use, and a couple of environmental protection groups succeed in undoing that. For several years legislative attempts were made to raise the weight limit in the legal definition of ATVs to allow heavier all terrain vehicles to be legally included as ATVs…allowing these heavier machines to be registered and used on roads designated for ATV use, but each time one way or another the legislation was defeated. There was also legislation to create an ATV trail system that mimics the snowmobile trail system but that attempt died. So there have been attempts to increase ATV use. The environmental groups do oppose snowmobiling but the issue is not as easy since snowmobiles though sometimes unsafe and annoying at times don’t damage the environment like ATV use often can. I think this article is a good ‘plant the seed’ precursor to the upcoming annual Tug Hill SNIRT run.

      • Boreas says:

        “Why are environmental groups not opposed to snowmobile use on Forest Preserve lands?”

        To answer your question simply look at the picture at the top of the article. The amount of environmental damage – especially to wetlands.

        This statement also seems to be assuming that “environmental groups” are the only opposition to ATV use on public lands. I think you will find broad opposition to opening up public land to ATV use.

        • Paul says:

          There are obviously lots of people outside environmental groups that are opposed to ATV use on public lands, I was making no such assumption nor did my comment indicate that it was only environmental groups. It would have said – “only”.

          I actually think that many environmental groups are probably opposed to snowmobile use but afraid to say it. You see lots of “we don’t take a position” type statements.

          • Boreas says:

            I agree. In this part of the world, coming out too strongly against snowmobiles would alienate conservation groups more than they already are.

  15. Dan says:

    I live in the Adirondacks and for two decades have let my neighbors ride ATVs on my land as there is a trail system shared by all of us. There are a few muddy spots, but overall the responsible use by everyone has resulted in little damage. I doubt, however, that would be the case if there were an Adirondack ATV trail system. There will always be someone who would abuse it. I would support an ATV park/system on lands acquired with that usage in mind and require users to do the same as snowmobilers and that is be part of a club that maintains the trails.

    I have owned ATVs but never actually rode them much, I just used them for work around my property. Now I have tractor, which is much more handy. As for hunting: they’re fine for someone with a disability. Otherwise, think of the hunting you’re missing out on while riding an ATV to a particular location. I’d rather walk, and increase my chances of encountering game en-route, which has happened on many occasions.

  16. Flatlander says:

    Before owning a camp in the Adirondacks, we trailered many years with 2 young children to Old Forge/ Tug Hill from eastern LI to snowmobile & quad. I 100% agree with Tim, the brutal truth is ATV’s do major damage to any trails they are allowed on. As Melissa said earlier, we use UTV/ ATV’s on our property, but I don’t let anyone ride through our land. Unfortunately the few ruin it for the rest. I would consider allowing electric golf carts to pass through, but ATV’s in the Adk park, it will change what you want to protect, period! Just my 2 cents