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Collumn by Jeff Clark in Downeast magazine, May 2003, Copyright 2000-03 Down East Enterprise, Inc.

Talk of Maine
By Jeff Clark

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 controversial machines.

"People are angry to a point that I've never seen before," Scruggs adds. "The Number One landowner problem is ATVs."

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 grow."

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 trust's property.

"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 filled again."

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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