Despite ban, riders continue to abuse trails in the Forest Preserve, though the extent of the problem is debated.
Unfortunately, I have to watch where I step. The trail is full of deep and muddy ruts, the ugly kind that can ruin your boots. It takes some of the fun out of hiking.
Muddy ruts are commonplace in parts of the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest, the Independence River Wild Forest, and many other tracts of the forever-wild Forest Preserve. Usually, they have been created by all-terrain vehicles.
Seven years after the state Department of Environmental Conservation banned ATVs from state land in the Adirondacks and Catskills to stop “illegal and inappropriate ATV use … and to ensure that the resources of the Forest Preserve are protected,” trails are still being chewed up by the four-wheel vehicles.
To size up the problem and get a handle on current trends, this spring I visited more than a dozen trails that a 2003 report by the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks or guidebooks had identified as having significant ATV damage. Despite the ban, enacted a year after the release of the RCPA report, two-thirds of the trails showed continued signs of abuse, with some trails churned into a muddy mess.
“There is still absolutely a large amount of trespass going on,” said Peter Bauer, the main author of the RCPA report, titled “Rutted and Ruined.” (Bauer has since left the RCPA to become executive director of the Fund for Lake George.)
DEC officials acknowledge that ATV trespass still occurs, but they contend that the problem is mostly under control. “All in all, the department does not see ATV trespass as a large-spread problem in the Forest Preserve,” said spokeswoman Lori Severino.
In the last five years, Severino said, DEC forest rangers and conservation officers have issued 132 tickets for illegal use of motor vehicles on state land.
That’s not enough, in the view of the Adirondack Council. Based on anecdotal evidence, “we think we are seeing more trespass,” said John Sheehan, the council’s spokesman. “Generally, where [ATVs] have been they’ve driven out other users because of the rutting, the noise, the disturbance.”
Scott Lorey, the council’s legislative director, suggested that DEC may not be aware of the extent of the problem because of cuts in staff. “They have a lot less boots on the ground to do enforcement,” he said.
But Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said he believes that ATV trespass in the Forest Preserve has abated over the past decade. “We still have a problem in a lot of areas, but in some of the areas where it was endemic, it has gotten better,” he said. “There has been more enforcement from DEC.”
Given the size of the Park (5.8 million acres) and its hundreds of trails, no one can say for sure whether ATV trespass is trending up or down. But the Explorer investigation found ruts, erosion, and other damage on public lands across the southern and western Adirondacks. Affected trails include Glasgow Pond Trail in the Ferris Lake Wild Forest, Irving Pond Trail in Shaker Mountain Wild Forest, Big Otter Lake West Trail in the Independence River Wild Forest, and Bear Creek Trail in the Black River Wild Forest.
ATV trespass seems to be more common in Wild Forest Areas than in Wilderness Areas. Most Wild Forest Areas are on the more populated fringes of the Park, and many are crisscrossed by old logging roads and snowmobile trails that ATV riders use to access the forest.
“If a snowmobile can get through, an ATV will find its way there,” Sheehan said.
Indeed, a 2003 study by the Wildlife Conservation Society, “All-Terrain Vehicles in the Adirondacks,” found that much of the trespass occurs on snowmobile trails. “Many of these trails traverse poorly drained or highly erosive soils, and many pass through wetlands,” the report said. “These factors make snowmobile trails highly susceptible to environmental damage by illegal ATV use.”
Snowmobile trails, of course, are designed for use in winter, when wetlands are frozen. When ATVs run through wet places in other seasons, the study said, “the trail gets wider and wider as the trail becomes increasingly muddy. Future users circumvent the wet areas, in many cases creating new trails, damaging vegetation and opening up new areas to abuse.”
ATVs also run through streams, muddying waters. Other environmental consequences of ATV trespass include the destruction of plants, the washing of soil into streams, the compaction of soil, and air pollution. And then there’s the noise, which studies say increases the stress on wildlife (not to mention ruining the wild experience for hikers).
As their name implies, all-terrain vehicles are designed to go virtually anywhere, including places that pickup trucks and jeeps can’t manage. Legally, though, ATVs can go almost nowhere—and that’s one cause of the trespass problem.
Over the past decade, the number of ATVs registered in New York State has grown to 126,779, an increase of thirty thousand. The eleven counties wholly or partially in the Adirondack Park account for 26,354 registrations, or 20 percent of the total (down from a peak of twenty-nine thousand in 2004). Some of those ATVs belong to farmers who use them for chores. Many belong to hunters. But some are owned by people best described as “thrill-seekers,” the folks that manufacturers such as Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Suzuki target with much of their advertising. Yet after spending anywhere from $6,000 to more than $10,000 on a new ATV, the owner will be hard-pressed to find a lawful place to ride.
Not only is the Forest Preserve off limits, but so is most state land outside the Park. Most private landowners also do not welcome ATV riders because of liability worries and environmental concerns. Generally, public highways are closed to ATVs, though towns have the discretion to open stretches of town roads to allow riders to reach legal trails.
One ATV advocate suggests that riders may be trespassing on state trails out of sheer resentment. “New York has created its own monster with this, by taking registration fees and giving people no place to ride,” said Bob Deitz, ATV trail coordinator for Lewis County.
In 2007, Lewis County approved a plan to develop four hundred miles of ATV trails, mostly on county-owned forestland. The county approached DEC about using old logging roads and truck trails in the Forest Preserve but was rebuffed. “We were told flat out that they would not open their truck trails for our county trail system,” Deitz said.
An economic development consultant, Camoin Associates of Saratoga Springs, estimated that the direct and indirect economic benefit of ATV users in the Tug Hill region of the state—which includes Lewis County—amounts to about $35 million annually.
Deitz said the county trail network has been successful, with more than 2,200 permits issued to riders. Because of the trails, there are more ATVs in the area now, and some illegal use does occur, a state forest ranger in Lowville acknowledged.
The Lewis County project has been successful enough that other counties, including St. Lawrence and Franklin, are looking at establishing trail systems that might take some of the pressure off the Forest Preserve—or perhaps lead to more calls to open state land to ATVs.
Deitz believes the old dirt roads in the Forest Preserve should be open to ATVs. He said riders probably would be willing to pay fees to help maintain and repair trails.
“These roads were built to allow forest access, fire breaks, and aid in safety for search and rescue,” Dietz said. “They are hardened travel ways that would greatly help the local communities with recreational tourism. Remember that everything does damage, and with the proper funding mechanism in place, and someone to monitor and manage the trails, any damage done can be remediated.”
Without access to state land, Deitz said, Lewis County ATV riders sometimes must ride for miles on public roads to move between county trails. Using trails on state land would be safer, he said.
In response, Severino said DEC has no plans to reconsider its ban on ATVs from the Forest Preserve. Generally, she said, DEC does not patrol trails in search of trespassers, but it does respond to complaints. When the department gets a complaint, it may initiate patrols or block access with a steel gate, boulders, or other barrier.
Although barriers can be effective, they are not foolproof. At Haskell Road in the southern Adirondacks, ATV riders simply drive around a steel gate. At Irving Pond, near Caroga Lake, a gate prevented ATVs from entering a foot trail, but a mile farther on, the trail merged with a snowmobile trail that has been ripped up by fat-tired traffic.
“Some unauthorized ATV use still does occur, but when reported by the public to DEC, our forest rangers and ECOs [environmental conservation officers] make every effort to identify the parties involved, issue tickets, and stop this illegal activity,” Severino said.
She said some of the 132 tickets issued by DEC over the last five years may have been issued to drivers of pickup trucks or jeeps. The maximum fine is $250, but probably few violators receive the maximum. “What happens is local judges will throw the tickets out,” Bauer said.
Bauer believes the “Rutted and Ruined” report raised awareness of the environmental damage caused by ATVs and helped goad DEC into banning the machines from the Preserve. And that, he said, is a big improvement.
“Is there ATV use in the Forest Preserve?” he asked. “Oh, absolutely. But it’s illegal now.” n