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Collumn by Jeff
Clark in Downeast magazine, May 2003, Copyright ©
2000-03 Down East Enterprise, Inc.
Talk of Maine
The ATV Menace
Rogue riders tearing up the Maine countryside are
giving the rollicking four-wheelers a bad name.
Harlan Brown, of South Gardiner, always swore he would
never post his 100 acres of field and woodland in Chelsea. "I never
had a problem with other people enjoying it, hunting on it or hiking or
whatever," he explains. Then three years ago he found an all-terrain
vehicle (ATV) trail along a power line right-of-way that crosses his
property. Then he found another trail that had been cut through his woods.
Then he found parts of his land so rutted by ATVs he couldn't walk across
it without tripping and falling.
"That's when I put up the No Trespassing signs,"
he says. "The ATVers came through anyway. So I dropped a couple of
trees across the trail. They cut the trees up and pushed them aside. I put
up a steel cable between two oak trees. They cut down one of the oaks.
That's when it became a war for me." These days Brown has his
property studded with cameras hooked up to motion sensors.
Harlan Brown is only one of the hundreds, and perhaps
thousands of landowners in Maine who are fed up with the damage and danger
posed by ATVs. "Last year I went up to the legislature to testify
about an ATV bill and there were three or four people there," Brown
recalls. "This year I went up and there were more than 200 people
there -- so many they couldn't all get into the hearing room. This thing
has just exploded."
ATVs have become the fastest growing -- and most
controversial -- recreational pastime in Maine. ATV registrations have
increased by 90 percent in the past five years to 55,660 in 2001, with
perhaps as many as 10,000 more unregistered vehicles. Dealers say ATVs are
outselling snowmobiles by two and three to one despite the state's weak
economy. Maine has ninety ATV clubs and 2,200 miles of designated ATV
trails. And the state has suddenly become a magnet for ATVers from all
over New England.
The popularity of ATVs, though, has not come to Maine
without a cost. Landowners across the state, outraged over the destruction
caused by the machines, have posted thousands of acres of land, closed
long-established snowmobile and hiking trails, and even set traps to catch
trespassing ATVs. Safety experts gasp at the rapid increase in injuries
and deaths among ATV users. Farmers fear ATVs could become the next
vehicle for spreading plant diseases from one field to the next. And
legislators are responding with a raft of bills aimed at tightening rules,
increasing fees, and toughening enforcement.
Widespread ATV resentment could even trigger a resurgence
of efforts to require a presumption that all private land is closed unless
posted as open to the public -- a radical notion in Maine and a historic
reversal of the age-old tradition of public access.
"It's a very explosive issue," says Roberta
Scruggs, a veteran outdoors writer who recently authored a landmark report
on the deteriorating relations between landowners and ATV owners for the
Sportsman's Alliance of Maine (SAM) entitled "Landowner Relations: A
Practical Guide to Preserving Public Access to Private Land." In
March she and SAM also organized a groundbreaking ATV conference,
"Access at Risk: Solving the ATV Crisis," where Governor John
Baldacci announced the formation of a state-level task force to try to
come up with solutions for some of the major issues surrounding the
"People are angry to a point that I've never seen
before," Scruggs adds. "The Number One landowner problem is
Finding a solution will not be easy, although the March
conference took some steps in the right direction with its emphasis on
education, enforcement, and the involvement of local ATV clubs to soothe
landowner complaints and tone down the rogue riders who are giving the
pastime its lousy reputation. "Actually, we think a lot of the
solutions we identified at the conference will work in the future for
other landowner issues," SAM executive director George Smith
explains. "I think we can get ahead of this problem and design a
trail network and enforcement system that will allow the sport to
Still, ATV supporters in Maine will have to mount a
serious campaign to win over people who have seen fields and woodlands,
wetlands and streams torn apart by careless four-wheelers.
Bob Cummings, president of the Phippsburg Land Trust,
tries to sound a reasonable note when he talks about the effect of
all-terrain vehicles on the trust's property along the east side of Center
Pond. He knows most ATV riders are responsible people. He knows ATVs have
some legitimate uses for farmers and small woodlot owners. He also knows
ATVs have caused thousands of dollars in damage in one afternoon on the
"We had an old logging road that we used as a walking
trail," he explains. "Last spring ATVers churned up a
seventy-foot-long pond through one section of it. I tried to drain it, and
someone came along and filled the drain. I opened up the drain a second
time and stashed my tools in the brush nearby so I could work on it some
more later. When I came back, the tools had disappeared and the drain was
Wayne Harper, of the Portland Natural Gas Transmission
System, says his company is spending $100,000 a year and more to repair
ATV damage along its pipeline right-of-way in southern Maine. He has put
up fences and signs. "They usually last less than two days," he
says with a touch of bitterness. "Wooden gates are chainsawed. Metal
gates are torched. We've hired private security firms. We brought in heavy
equipment to build boulder barricades. Without exception ATVers have gone
over, around, or through them."
Some landowners are resorting to even more desperate
measures. When state officials inspected newly purchased public land in
western Maine, they found twenty places where spikes made of steel rebar
and heavy nails had been set into ATV trails with the obvious intent of
impaling tires or even the machines themselves.
Many people compare the current ATV situation with that
facing snowmobiles in the early 1970s, when hot-rodders gunned the noisy,
smoking machines through backyards and across tree plantations without
regard for the disturbance or the damage they caused. "Snowmobilers
gained credibility when they organized into clubs and began working with
landowners to create the current statewide trail system," says Brian
Bronson, the ATV coordinator for the Department of Conservation. "We
believe that's also the answer for ATVs."
In areas with active clubs, complaints have gone down
dramatically, in part because of efforts like those of Jim Lane, a
Registered Maine Guide in Parkman who is active in the Piscataquis
Wildlife Cruisers ATV Club. He has spent so much time during the past two
years smoothing over landowner relations and solving problems that he says
he hasn't even had time to go riding himself.
"I got home last night and found nine complaints on
my answering machine," he says. "I got hold of five of the
landowners before supper and signed all of them up for our trail system. I
did that by promising to take care of their problems, and we will. A club
can solve 70 percent of all the problems a landowner has with ATVs."
The other 30 percent requires law enforcement, and if
there is a common complaint among those angered by ATV abuse, it is that
they can't get anyone to listen, much less respond, to their pleas for
help. Local police pass responsibility on to the county sheriff, who tells
landowners to call the Maine Warden Service, which shrugs and says its
priorities are fish and game violations. Indeed, everyone in law
enforcement says they lack the money, the manpower, and the machines to
police ATVers adequately.
"And you can bet your life that ATVers know it,"
Harlan Brown notes. Even when they are caught, rogue riders face very
uncertain punishment. Brown used his cameras to identify three ATV riders
on his Chelsea property. He turned the names and photos over to a local
game warden, who wrote up the trio on criminal trespassing charges. But
then the local district attorney declined to prosecute, saying the
infractions were too minor to bother with.
Strictly speaking, Maine's wardens have primary
responsibility for enforcing ATV regulations, but Colonel Tim Peabody,
chief of the Maine Warden Service, points out that enforcement effort is
directly related to the money available to finance it. "By law we
can't use money from hunting and fishing licenses for ATV
enforcement," he explained at the March ATV conference. "And the
money we get from ATV licenses hasn't changed since 1995."
That oversight will be corrected if ATV registration fees
are raised by a substantial amount, as both landowners and ATV riders are
requesting. "Twelve or seventeen dollars for an ATV license is just
silly," points out Roberta Scruggs. Those directly involved want to
see annual fees of at least thirty-five dollars for residents and fifty
dollars for out-of-state riders, with all of the resulting income funneled
through the Department of Conservation, which already oversees
disbursement of snowmobile registration funds. The money would be split
between trail establishment and maintenance and enforcement.
Registered Maine Guide Lane figures the extra money should
be enough to create a force of at least eight "recreational
wardens" devoted strictly to policing ATVs riders, as well as, in
season, snowmobilers and boaters. It's an intriguing idea, inspired by the
success of Fort Kent Police Chief Kenneth "Doody" Michaud.
Plagued by endless complaints about ATV riders in his northern Maine town,
Michaud persuaded the town manager to buy an ATV and equip it with a blue
light. He also persuaded the town council to set speed limits and other
controls on ATVs within the community. Then he sent out regular patrols on
local ATV trails.
"The first year we wrote forty violations and seventy
warnings, and we had some stern words with the local teenagers. Word got
around," he says. "Now we're way down from that."
Ironically, the most populous part of Maine has both more
problems and fewer ATV clubs that might deal with them. To make matters
worse, southern Maine is especially attractive for out-of-state ATVers who
think the Pine Tree State -- a.k.a. "Vacationland" -- is
wide-open territory for riding. "I spoke with someone in Sanford who
approached a group of eighty ATVs from Massachusetts that had been tearing
up the countryside," Scruggs recalls. "He asked them to tone it
down, because they were giving all ATV riders a bad name. They said they
didn't care. They were going home at the end of the day anyway, and their
homes weren't in Maine."
Those ATV owners whose homes are in Maine are learning
they have to share it with the state's other residents. Whether the lesson
sinks in before even stricter measures are enacted to control what they're
doing to private land remains to be seen.
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