ATVs stir debate
The use of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) on public land on Martha's Vineyard has recently become the focus of spirited debate in the community.
On one side are public officials, who say that riding ATVs on public property is illegal and harmful to the land, along with private citizens who like the state forest the way it is. On the other side are ATV enthusiasts who claim that they have been unfairly excluded from using public land for their sport.
Much of the debate has been publicized in letters to the editor printed in The Times.
Last month, Beth Serusa of West Tisbury, a parent of an ATV rider, wrote, "These kids have chosen their sport to be ATV riding and deserve a place to ride."
Ruts in the state forest show where ATV riders have created a riding track near the Martha's Vineyard Airport. Photo by Ezra Blair
In a letter to the editor published two weeks ago, Russ Lawrence of Edgartown, said that he is regularly disturbed by ATVs riding past his house. He wrote, "The noise, the fumes, the damage to the environment affect us all eventually. The trails in the state forest, conservation properties, and ancient ways continually take a beating from this activity. Some recover, many don't."
Much of the controversy has focused around the 5,100-acre Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, located in the heart to the Vineyard. ATVs are prohibited from the state forest, but John Varkonda, state forest superintendent, said that hasn't stopped many ATV owners. "It's no secret that people are riding [ATVs] in the forest," he said. "It's definitely a problem."
And it's a problem that also seems to be getting worse, Mr. Varkonda said. "It fluctuates, but we seem to have a lot more kids and young adults that are riding in the forest right now," he said.
Mr. Varkonda said that ATVs pose an environmental threat to the forest. "With their powerful motors and their ability to spin their back wheel, they really tear up the ground," he said. "They do a pretty good job of ripping up the trails wherever they go."
Mr. Varkonda said that ATV riders use both the large firebreaks that run through the state forest and the narrower walking and cycling paths. In some instances they have even cut their own trails. "They have made new trails, and that is one of the things that annoys me the most," he said. "You go out there and you can see where these riders have essentially built a racetrack in the middle of what was virgin woods."
Mr. Varkonda said that he puts up signs, and tries to educate people about the problems that ATVs cause, but he said it is an uphill battle. Many of his signs are removed or defaced, and when he catches people riding ATVs, most refuse to stop, he said.
Environmental Police Sgt. Patrick Grady said that it is difficult to enforce the no-ATV policy in the state forest. "It is such a large area with so many ingress and egress points that it is very difficult to keep the forest monitored," he said.
Illegal ATV riding is not unique to the state forest.
Matthew Dix, Martha's Vineyard Land Bank property foreman, said that several properties, especially those that abut the state forest, have had an influx of ATV trespassers in recent years. Asked to comment on the matter, Mr. Dix said simply, "We haven't had any good experiences with them."
Mr. Dix said it is both an environmental and public safety problem. He highlighted an incident three years ago when a Land Bank employee working with a chainsaw narrowly missed being run over by two young ATV riders who caught him by surprise at a sharp turn in the path.
"The riders and the parents think it is just good clean fun, but it's not," said Mr. Dix. "It causes extensive damage on private property, and it is dangerous for other people who want to use the property."
Sergeant Grady said that, wherever they are riding, ATV owners and the parents of young ATV riders need to take responsibility for their actions. "I wish people would find out what the laws are before they go out and buy these bikes and quads for themselves or their kids," he said. "If someone doesn't want you on their property, you have to respect that and respect the law."
This is a view shared by Mr. Lawrence, who wrote in his letter to the editor, "Clearly the problem wouldn't exist if the parents or adult riders didn't ignore the laws. There are signs on the properties that clearly prohibit this activity. If these weren't enough, a responsible adult would contact the property owner or local police department to ascertain permission prior to trespassing. By not doing so, the parents enable their children to ignore these regulations and should be held as accountable as those riding the properties."
One parent of an ATV rider is trying to establish a legal riding place on the Island. In a letter to the editor published in December, Lisa Rogers of West Tisbury asked interested Islanders to join her in a campaign to legalize ATV riding. "I would like to gather names, assess interest, and simply facilitate the start of something my husband and I feel has been a long time coming," she wrote.
It is not a new idea. In 2001, a group of Islanders circulated a petition asking that a portion of the state forest be set aside for the use of all-terrain vehicles, but the effort never get off the ground.
There is precedent for allowing ATVs on state land. According to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which controls the state forests, ATV riding is allowed in eight forest management areas across the state. ATVs are only permitted on specifically marked trails within those forests and can only be ridden during a riding season beginning no earlier than May 1 and ending no later than the last Sunday of November.
Mr. Varkonda said that ATV riders on the Vineyard would have to organize themselves before the state would consider give similar access to riders on the Island. "Before they can do anything, the riders would have to get control of themselves as a group," he said. "Where the commonwealth has allowed trail riding in the state forests, they are in cooperation with some sort of group. The group is what provides the rules and regulations, and the ability to enforce those rules and regulations."