On one of our first warm days of spring, I rode my bike from Meacham Lake to St. Regis Falls and back again in a 40-mile loop. Soon after turning onto Red Tavern Road, I was passed by four riders on all-terrain vehicles coming from the opposite direction. I didn’t think much of it, but as I continued down the road, I was astounded by the number of ATVs I encountered. Altogether, I would see more than a hundred ATVs that day, either driving on the roads or parked outside bars. In St. Regis Falls, where I stopped for lunch at the Adirondack Cafe (good soup & sandwiches), I saw more ATVs than cars on the streets.
I had seen ATVs on rural roads before, but nothing like this. I was flabbergasted because I thought ATVers were prohibited from driving on public highways except for short distances to access trails. Was I mistaken? After my bike ride, I e-mailed the State Police to find out what the law says. I received the following reply: “Section 2403 of the NY State Vehicle and Traffic Law prohibits the operation of ATV’s on highways except to make a crossing, unless otherwise posted.”
Here’s the dilemma. If police crack down on ATV riders for driving on roads, the miscreants are likely to spend more time riding off road, including in the Forest Preserve, where they wreak all kinds of damage to trails and vegetation. Riding in the Preserve is illegal, too, but the chances of getting caught are pretty slim. Frankly, if ATVers are going to break the law, I’d rather they stick to the roads. The problem is that they ride both on roads and in the Preserve.
So what’s to be done to protect the Preserve from ATVs? One partial solution is to open logging roads on timberlands to ATVs. The state and Lyme Timber recently agreed to do this on easement lands in the northeastern Adirondacks. But I doubt this will solve the problem. My guess is that many people like to ride right from their homes on local roads and trails, perhaps stopping at a favorite waterhole or diner. Would they be willing to drive for an hour or more, with ATV in tow, to a logging road in the middle of nowhere? Sure, they might check it out, but I’ll bet they’d continue to ride their local routes as well.
Enforcing the law is easier said than done. There just aren’t enough environmental conservation officers to do the job, and the state won’t be hiring many more in this economic crisis. What the state can do, however, is strengthen the penalties for riding ATVs in the Preserve.
John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council would like to see ATV trespassers fined $100 for a first offense. For a second offense, he says, the courts should fine the scofflaw $500 and, more important, confiscate his or her ATV. These machines can cost more than $10,000 new. If an owner stands to lose an ATV, that’s a powerful incentive to stay out of the Forest Preserve.
The council is shopping around a bill to the state legislature that would stiffen the penalties along these lines. A similar bill was introduced in the legislature a few years back, but it fizzled in the Senate. At that time, the Senate was controlled by Republicans. Now Democrats have the majority in both the Senate and the Assembly. The governor also is a Democrat. “With one-party rule, we have a shot,” Sheehan said.
After my bike ride, I realized what the state Department of Environmental Conservation is up against in trying to keep ATVs out of the Preserve. A law with some teeth might make the agency’s job a little easier.