Tom Gillot and Cindy Rock proponents of adding ATV trails for responsible users. (Photo by Martin J. Kernan)

The knobby treads on ATV tires have teeth designed to bite the earth for maximum traction. Mud tires, aka “mud throwers,” look particularly aggressive. Before I saw them for the first time, when they kicked up gravel in my direction after the operator of a side-by-side (with child riding shotgun) declined an interview, I heard all 700ccs of its four-stroke engine screaming like a chainsaw. This sound, which cuts through the silence of Adirondack Park wilderness, troubles conservation groups that are also ATV watchdogs. One of those groups, the Adirondack Council, recently issued a report arguing that these machines chew up sensitive habitats and will continue to do so unless the New York State Legislature bans ATVs from the Adirondack state-owned lands within the park.

Local municipalities and ATV riding clubs are more sanguine. Matthew Simpson, president of the New York State Association of Towns and Villages, said most ATVers are responsible and it’s only a recalcitrant few that give the rest a bad name.

An outspoken critic of the Adirondack Council’s push to ban ATVs is Jerry Delany. Jerry had guided me into the heart of ATV country inside the park. He and I stood at the intersection of a well-worn ATV trail and secondary road outside the Village of Dannemora. As we watched a party of ATVers avoid our attempted inquiries, I realized that we were off to a rough start and wondered what else might be in store.

(Photo by Martin J. Kernan)

At 6 million acres, the Adirondack Park is the largest publicly protected natural area in the lower 48, greater in size than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Park combined. Its rugged high peaks and 3,000 pristine glacial lakes and ponds draw hundreds of thousands of hikers, mountain bikers, canoers, kayakers, snowmobilers, skiers, fishermen hunters, and other nature lovers from throughout the northeast and beyond. The New York State Constitution charges the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) with keeping the forest preserve “forever wild.”

About half of the park is privately owned. More than 130,000 people call it home year-round. On the way to meet Jerry, I passed some of these properties. Not every woodshed and pole barn visible from Route 8 had an ATV parked next to it, but many did. And they weren’t jacked-up with suspension and splattered with mud. They sported winches and racks and trailers and other accouterments of utility, like the ones I soon encountered with Jerry when we met some ATVers.

Jerry is a former corrections officer, itinerant logger, Saranac Town Board member and the presiding officer of Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, which was created under the New York State Constitution to advise the state Park Authority on land use.

In the Sable and Chazy Highlands, Jerry has spent the better part of a decade working with ATV riding clubs to connect fragmented sections of an old railroad bed into an ATV trail system. But the “general ban,” as Jerry calls it, which the DEC’s ambiguous policy on ATVs promulgates, has rendered these efforts largely futile.

ATV clubs like the “Outbackers” feel handicapped by the ban. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Agent Dennis Del Grosso is one. Outbackers, he said, “are always on the lookout for wildlife, and often stop by picturesque sites to relax and take photos.” By banning ATVs, particularly the easily maneuverable side-by-sides, he said the DEC is effectively banning him and his similarly retired friends from the forest preserve.

It’s Sunday. Jerry’s clothes betray that he has been working outdoors. He laments the piecemeal approach to establishing ATV trails, the knots into which clubs tie themselves to bypass state land and public roadways. (The Outbackers, for example, purchased riding rights on a circuitous patchwork of private property, just to get from one section of old railroad bed to the next. The trail at issue runs from the Village of Dannemora to the forest preserve south of Lyon Mountain.) But most of all, Jerry regrets that his ATV-riding friends (Jerry doesn’t ride) are made to feel like outcasts by a system of trail regulation that welcomes snowmobiles but neither expressly condones nor categorically prohibits ATV use. He also regrets the fact that state agencies make little to no provision for ATV trail purchase, maintenance or development, and put ATV clubs in the uncertain position of never really knowing if where they are is where they’re supposed to be.

It was hard to tell whether the ATVers Jerry spotted at the intersection were the responsible type. When he and I approached them, it felt more like a confrontation than a friendly how-do-you-do. Indeed by their reaction it was clear they felt vulnerable, exposed to some sort of legal jeopardy. As if they were at risk of someone coming to take their ATVs away; which, incidentally, the Adirondack Council supports. This is what Jerry meant when he called the Council’s report “an all-out assault on ATVs and an attack on part of the culture of the Adirondacks, and on rural America.”

The report portrays the illegal use of ATVs within park boundaries as forest rangers’ “most problematic activity.” But ATV enthusiasts say this accusation is really just the bogyman of environmentalists. Still, the council cites figures showing that forest rangers wrote 207 tickets in 2017 for a host of ATV-related violations, about one third of which were for trespass on the forest preserve. Only two such violations occurred between May 2018 and May 2019, according to documents Jerry obtained. Of course it’s possible that a number went undetected, which is the fear implicit in claims that the ranger force is understaffed, underfunded and overwhelmed.

ATV ruts and tire tracks show in this Adirondack trail.  (Photo by Martin Kernan)

Recently this fear was realized at the annual SNIRT (blend of “snow” and “dirt”) rally just outside the park’s western boundary in Lewis County, where ATVers received 28 citations for driving their Recons, Raptors, Kodiaks, Sportsmen and Brute Forces onto the forest preserve. Adirondack Council spokesman John Shaheen said the citations show how ATVs get out of hand, intruding on protected lands and private property, leaving ruts filled with turbid water.

Beyond the ugly aesthetics, reports by the Adirondack Council and Protect the Adirondacks document environmental damage caused by mishandled ATVs. On the surface, there is soil compaction and erosion, crushed tree roots and disturbed critter habitats. Beneath it, a delicate crust that binds micro-fauna and micro-flora breaks down, leading to soil infertility and the consequent loss of plant communities.

Mother nature is not the only one at risk of harm by ATVs, says the Adirondack Council. New York ranks eighth in the nation in ATV-related fatalities. In 2018, the council report says, a man on ATV died after hitting a ditch and a tree, and separately, a teenager wound up in a coma after surgery for a fractured  femur from an ATV accident. The environmental group wants stricter state laws to prohibit ATV use on public roads and to make 16 the age at which one can legally operate an ATV (currently it’s 10). Otherwise, the Council argues, more tragedies like those appearing in the report will befall North Country residents

Attacking the safety of ATVs is a common way environmental groups have tried to limit the use of the machines. On one side, local governments have attempted to use their roads to connect ATV trail systems. On the other, ATV watchdogs have successfully thwarted these attempts at every turn. At the heart of the cases, and at the heart of the ATV controversy itself, is a fear that expanding the range of ATVs through unbroken trail systems will expose forest preserve to more damage. The legal weapon used by Protect the Adirondacks and the Adirondack Council to block municipalities from making trail connections is a provision of the state Vehicle and Traffic law, which makes using public roadways to connect ATV trails (including those on private land) illegal unless it’s “otherwise impossible” to do. It’s for courts to decide exactly what “otherwise impossible” means. Jerry notes that in some of these cases, towns and villages were giving ATVs free rein to roam the streets.

The DEC takes on protean proportions in this debate. As far as it’s concerned, ATVs are allowed everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Everywhere, in that there’s no agency regulation specifically against it. Yet nowhere, as the DEC currently does not allow ATV use on forest preserve. Outside forest preserve, on state land where there’s already cars and trucks and roads, ATVs are allowed only on short trails needed to connect public, UMP-authorized ATV trail systems (that’s “Unit Management Plan” for anyone not steeped in the administrative minutia of the APA, which, BTW, develops UMPs, solicits public comment on them, then revises them, etc.). If there are public ATV trail systems authorized by UMPs (save the Town of Brighton Conservation Easement), I’m not familiar with them. In any event, the DEC appears to be protecting its turf by reserving its prerogative to decide ATV use on a UMP-by-UMP basis.

Also, the DEC does not support a statutory ban of ATV use on forest preserve. Lori Severino, its public information officer, said so in an email. The DEC’s rationale is that existing restrictions on ATVs are sufficient, she said. The restrictions she refers to are the Adirondack State Land Master Plan and the Strategic Plan for State Forest Management. ATV watchdogs worry, however, that without a statutory ban these ad hoc protections will erode under pressure by the pro-tourism lobby, which Shaheen said is being led by an ATV manufacturer. The council’s report cites as evidence recent attempts by the DEC and APA to establish ATV trails on state land.

Nearing the ultimate destination that day, Treff, Jerry’s energetic German shorthaired pointer, eight years old, which had been taking in our nuanced discussion of ATV regulation from the club cab, began to whine with anticipation. A walk was in store. A walk that led at first past pickup trucks hitched to empty trailers, which had carried ATVs to this trailhead from parts unknown. Treff led us past mountain-size piles of slag—remnants of the steel mill that is no more. He turned and pointed at a trail marked “forest preserve.” The sign also displayed prominently the notice “NO ATVs.” The warnings gave Treff no pause. Halfway down the trail, cascading water over a shale formation explained why the state had protected this half-mile stretch of wilderness. It was then and there that Treff, Jerry and I stood witness to the only mark of man in all the unspoiled natural beauty that surrounded us (save the slag). Beneath our feet and all around, ATVs had laid down pitted tracks. Jerry was incredulous. He insisted there was a legal bypass of the forest preserve, which to a ranger’s mind would only make the trespass all the more inexcusable. Treff, as if sensing the tension, moved ahead quickly.

Back at the trailhead, two slow-moving ATVs emerged from the forest. Tom Gillot and Cindy Rock were returning from a daytrip to Lyon Mountain on a Town of Bellmont trail that welcomes ATVs. They had outfitted themselves to have lunch and view wildlife — a fact corroborated by the binoculars hanging from Tom’s neck and the contents of the cargo box he was unloading. Cindy wishes there were more ATV trails, and talked reverently about those in New Hampshire and Maine, echoing comments of Matthew Simpson and Dennis Del Grosso and virtually anyone making the case that New York State hasn’t done enough for ATVers. A conversation ensued about moose sightings and the aggressive tendencies of partridges. Jerry had a flash of insight as Tom and Cindy recalled the unexpected pleasures that exploring nature brings, and said that decent, law-abiding people like them are the ones hurt by the ATV controversy.

“We have to find a way across the divide,” Jerry said. Across the divide, he sees common ground—a place where the DEC is no longer ambivalent, but becomes “successful in limiting incidents of trespass on state land by permitting ATVs reasonable access.” It’s a place where ATVs are providing an “economic boost to rural communities,” he said. It’s a place where “higher ATV registration fees are being used to fund trail-building, education and stricter enforcement.” It’s true—Jerry, Matthew Simpson and the Adirondack Council all agree, ATV misuse should be punished severely. But that isn’t surprising, as none of them would countenance for an Adirondack minute someone disrespecting the park they call home.

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