A coalition of conservation organizations released a statement and a report last week calling on the State Legislature to address the misuse of All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) on public lands and protect public safety, water quality and wildlife in the Adirondack Park.
The report: WRONG WAY: How New York State Can Course-Correct on ATV Use was published by the Adirondack Council. It documents a recent shift in state policy toward allowing more ATV use on public lands, resulting in widespread harm.
Advocates for non-motorized access and environmental organizations released a statement with the report saying the state’s policies against ATVs on public lands are weak and often ignored. They said a new law is needed to prevent worsening harm to New York’s most sensitive parks, forests, pristine lakes, wild rivers and rare wildlife.
In the statement, a spokesman for state Forest Rangers called ATV violations “the largest source of citations issued by the Ranger Force today.” Advocates noted that Forest Rangers’ annual reports call ATV misuse the most problematic enforcement issue they face,” resulting in an average of 496 tickets per year over the last decade. They explained that tickets alleging trespass on public lands are frequently dismissed or result in no penalty and therefore don’t deter repeat offenses.
The coalition called for a new law that makes it clear that ATVs are not allowed on the Forest Preserve and other State lands, with very few exceptions. The Ranger force is already stretched too thin and require a true deterrent for those who misuse ATVs. Each Ranger is now responsible for patrolling more than 50,000 acres of land, or more than twice the amount they patrolled in the 1970s. The Department of Environmental Conservation has reported that the illegal use of ATVs on state lands is frequent, difficult to prevent, and presents significant enforcement issues. The Legislature needs to help deter ATV misuse.
The damage isn’t limited to the Adirondack Forest Preserve. ATVs cause damage to sensitive public forests in the Long Island Pine Barrens, the Catskills and the Albany Pine Bush too. New York wants the public to explore and enjoy these magnificent natural resources but enjoying them shouldn’t result in destroying them. Sure, nature is resilient. Given time and no additional damage, scarred areas can recover. But the damage has to stop first, and it doesn’t disappear overnight.
ATVs can do great and lasting damage to wet, organic soils prevalent throughout many public lands of the Adirondacks. It’s easy to see ATV tracks in wetland bogs and bog meadows created by ATV riders years ago. Some ATV riders come from downstate and may be unaware that riding can cause great damage to sensitive lowlands of the Park. So a law that expressly prohibits ATV riding on public lands would be both educational to those who ride and helpful to Forest Rangers and Environmental Conservation Officers.
Deep ruts are an indication of erosion and soil compaction. Both are bad for forests, especially around steep slopes. Mud gets washed into nearby streams when it rains, darkening clear waters and burying trout breeding sites in silt. ATVs’ knobby tires trample and rip out vegetation, harming wildlife and accelerating further erosion.
ATVs make a mess of trails designed for other users. They ruin hiking, ski and snowmobile trails by making them both dangerous and difficult for others to use. ATVs are not the only activity that creates an impact on the environment, but the impact of an ATV on a per-user basis is self-evidently disproportionate to other activities.
The Adirondack Council’s report shows that amid a flood of new visitors to the Adirondack Park’s scenic Forest Preserve, state officials have proposed loosening restrictions on a destructive recreational activity found on state lands and on private lands where the state holds conservation easements. This would lead to increased erosion and water pollution, while threatening public safety, the report says. Getting ATVs under control is even more important as the park’s visitor numbers continue to rise due to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s investments in tourism. The 25-percent boost in visitors over the past decade (from 10 million to more than 12.4 million) is welcome, but prompts us to be careful about how we manage the influx of new visitors.
ATVs have a place in this park on private lands such as farms, construction sites and logging operations. But as a recreational vehicle, they incompatible with the aims of public resource ownership: the preservation of clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat, as well as the facilitation of recreation that respects the carrying capacity of the resource. They don’t belong on the Forest Preserve, unless used for search and rescue, for actions relating to the management of the natural resources, or in providing access for a person with a disability.
The state has, by practice, not allowed ATVs on public trails in the Adirondacks for many years. But practices change. Over the past decade, state agencies have been loosening restrictions on ATV use. Instead of expanding efforts to stop unlawful ATV use, they have proposed new ATV riding areas and created new recreational routes that expose public lands to an increased risk of trespass.
The Adirondack Council has been tracking ATV damage inside the Adirondack Park since the 1990s and the damage continues to mount as more ATVs are registered and used, and as younger and younger riders are introduced to the activity. New York law currently allows riders as young as 10 years old to operate an ATV unsupervised. Because some local governments have insisted on opening public roads to ATVs, this allows children as young as 10 to ride roads along with cars and trucks.
Too often, the results are tragic. Efforts to accommodate ATV use in communities has led to the illegal opening of public streets to ATV traffic, leading to several successful lawsuits from conservation organizations and local citizens whose homes were affected by the traffic. But towns keep opening new ones. ATV crashes sent 101,200 Americans to the emergency room in 2016. Of those, nearly 27,000 were children under 16 years old. New York is among the top 10 states for ATV injuries.
Not long ago, a report by the Wildlife Conservation Society illustrated the damage ATVs’ have done to the inhabitants of the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
While proponents of recreational ATV access on public lands may tout potential economic benefits, what stands out even more are the costs of ATV riding. Our environment, public health and safety, and peace and solitude all suffer greatly when ATVs are misused. ATVs are unique machines that require unique management. It is time for the legislature to support our Rangers with a general ban on ATV use for the Forest Preserve and other State lands.
Photos, from above: ATV in Five Ponds Wilderness, ATV gate, and Independence River Wild Forest ATV Damage.