Joint police patrol targets ATVs in state forest

Edgartown and state Environmental Police teamed up to curb illegal off-road activity and educate parents of young riders.

Edgartown Police Sgt. Joel DeRoche, shown in his cruiser patrolling the state forest, is seeking to curtail dirtbike activity. – Sam Moore

Officers from the Edgartown Police Department and the Massachusetts Environmental Police teamed up on a recent Saturday to patrol the 5,100-acre Manuel Correllus State Forest in an effort to clamp down on riders, many of them young, using off-terrain vehicles illegally in the Edgartown portion of the eight-square-mile preserve that extends into West Tisbury.

Although the use of motorized vehicles is not permitted in the state forest, riders on generally unregistered all-terrain vehicles (dirt bikes, quads, and ATVs) routinely speed along an extended network of trails, drawing complaints from hikers and bordering residents subjected to the sound of screaming motors. Responding police officers are generally frustrated in their efforts to corral the lawbreakers, who are usually gone by the time police arrive.

In an effort to be proactive, on May 21 Edgartown Police Sergeant Joel DeRoche, Officer Will Bishop and Environmental Police Lieutenant Matthew Bass spent several hours at one of the favored biker haunts in an effort to stop riders. Sergeant DeRoche said police were more interested in getting the word out that the illegal practice must stop than in writing citations.

The day would end with no encounters: “Social media lit up shortly after we entered the state forest,” Sgt. DeRoche told the Times in an email on Sunday, adding, “There will be more patrols.”

Long wait

The group of officers met at the Edgartown police station on Saturday prior to the patrol. A Times reporter and photographer were invited along.

Sgt. DeRoche explained that legally registered dirt bikes may be ridden under three circumstances: “On your own property, on the property of another with written permission, and at the dirt bike park in the Airport Industrial Park off Barnes Road, near the Edgartown and West Tisbury town line.”

“We had hoped that development of a dirt bike park would alleviate the problem of illegal riding, but that’s not been the case,” he said.

By way of emphasis, as the patrol team assembled, Lestar Vargas, 37, a Florida resident working on the Island, limped into the police station to fill out an accident report days after he broke his leg riding his dirt bike.

“I’ve been riding for 25 years, never had an accident. I was driving on flat ground at the bike park, just changing to third gear, and the bike suddenly swerved sideways. I let the bike go, landed on my [right] leg, and boom, heard it snap,” he said ruefully.

“I’m done riding dirt bikes, and I would tell her not to ride,” he said, pointing to his 7-year-old daughter, who had accompanied him.

“Will she listen? Did I listen to my father? But if she chooses to ride, what I can do is supervise her riding,” he said.

His parental strategy is music to law enforcement ears. “Parents should be our biggest allies in this matter, taking a role in supervision of their kids’ riding habits,” Sgt. DeRoche said. “It’s not good to buy kids a dirt bike for Christmas or a birthday and just turn them loose.”

No easy task

Trying to stop illegal riding activity can be a frustrating job. Riders confronted by the police often run away, a decision that could spell the difference between a stern lecture and a criminal charge.

“Last week in the woods, I encountered four people on dirt bikes and a quad coming toward me,” Officer Bishop said. “I stopped, turned on my blues. They turned and headed the other way.”
“That’s always the case. They see a car, they take off, which is frustrating, because 95 percent of the time, it would merely be an informational stop,” Sgt. DeRoche said. “We are not in the business of police chases through the woods.”

“Most of the riders are very savvy. They know where they are going and how to get there fast,” Sgt. DeRoche said of the forest and adjoining public lands. He pointed out that bikers had extended trails beyond the state forest, and crossed Land Bank property to reach Tisbury, West Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs, often crossing Barnes and Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Roads to do it.

Driving through a subdivision, Sgt. DeRoche pointed out an entrance to a Land Bank property. “See that heavy metal sign blocking the trail?” he said. “That’s the third sign the Land Bank has installed. The first two were vandalized.”

Sgt. DeRoche said that despite the signs and a metal pole intended to block vehicular traffic, the path is rutted with tire tracks that weave between the obstructions and the trees by the trailside. The fact that many dirt bikes are unregistered makes it more difficult for authorities to identity riders. “Last week, a couple of walkers got a photo of a quad driver who immediately drove away, though we advise people not to confront or block riders,” Sgt. DeRoche said.

He believes most Island riders are 14 to 16 years old. Lieut. Bass said the statewide profile is 17 to 30 years of age.

Frustrated residents living in close proximity to bike trails routinely make complaint calls, “and in an area like this, they can be epidemic,” Sgt. DeRoche said on Saturday, surveying a quarter-mile straightaway on a trail that runs past several subdivisions and within 100 feet of residences.

“Believe me, if you lived in areas like this where they ride constantly, you’d know how frustrating it can be,” he said, describing the Saturday patrol as a proactive rather than reactive action his department can take.

“Part of what we’re seeing here is the growth of the Island. Fifty years ago, most of our population lived near the shoreline, and inland was undeveloped. But that’s changed, and what was OK 50 years ago isn’t OK today,” the 20-year law enforcement veteran said.

For more information on off-road vehicle use, go to the state website at