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Rules of the off-road; Riders, enforcers, environmentalists aim for safe, legal motoring on trails.

Byline: Bradford L. Miner

COLUMN: THE WORLD AROUND US

In simple economics, it's a case of supply and demand: Massachusetts has nearly 30,000 registered off-highway vehicles, and an estimated 90,000 households own one or more all-terrain vehicles or dirt bikes. That growing population can use just 155 miles of trails in eight state forests.

As a result, OHV enthusiasts and other public land stakeholders, such as environmentalists and other recreational trail users, have often been at odds.

But now they are working to resolve their differences, said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian A. Bowles.

Enforcement of rules and regulations governing OHVs on trails in state parks and forests should be strengthened, according to a group of state, local, environmental and recreational interests convened by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Reached by consensus over six months of meetings last year, recommendations from the OHV Enforcement and Education Working Group would enhance public safety and improve conditions for owners of OHVs who ride legally on public and privately owned trails across the state.

State forests where the DCR allows off-highway vehicles to use trails are Freetown-Fall River State Forest, F. Gilbert Hills State Forest in Wrentham and Franklin State Forest in the southeastern part of the state; and the Beartown, October Mountain, Pittsfield and Tolland state forests in the Berkshires.

There are no trails allowing motorized off-highway vehicles in any state parks or forests in Central Massachusetts.

Wendy Fox, spokeswoman for DCR, said all Central Massachusetts properties owned and operated by the state agency will remain closed to motorized off-highway vehicle riding for the foreseeable future. Gary Briere, director of DCR's Bureau of Recreation, said the agency first had to prove that OHV riding in the parks and forests could be sustained from year to year without significant environmental impact.

Mr. Briere said DCR's Central Massachusetts properties had yet to be fully vetted for sustainable riding.

The enforcement working group believes that one key to successful regulation and enforcement is having legal places to ride.

"Without a sufficient number of legal places to ride, all the enforcement activity in the world isn't going to eliminate the challenge posed by illegal riding," Mr. Briere said.

"I think there needs to be more legal riding opportunities in Central Massachusetts. I'm just not sure today what they are," he said.

One group of Central Massachusetts riders is working on a network of trails on private property, Mr. Briere said.

Key recommendations of the OHV working group include:

Expand law enforcement capacity to provide consistent and effective enforcement of OHV laws and regulations.

Strengthen fines and penalties for OHV offenses, including trespassing.

- Require safety and responsibility training for OHV drivers 18 and younger.

- Simplify the registration process and require registration for all OHVs, with revenue designated for increasing enforcement capability and the development, maintenance and restoration of OHV trails.

- Reduce allowable OHV noise levels to the national standard 96 decibels adjusted

at 20 inches.

- Reinforce efforts to protect children by strengthening requirements for adult supervision of young drivers, restricting the sales of adult-sized ATVs and integrating Consumer Product Safety Commission rules for OHV use into state regulations.

- Strengthen communication among enthusiasts, land managers, enforcement agencies and other stakeholders by establishing an OHV Advisory Group similar to those in other states.

Robert Keough, assistant secretary for communications and public affairs in the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the focus on enforcement and riding safety on state-owned trails will be accomplished with the existing complement of state environmental police officers.

"There are no plans at this time to increase the number of environmental police. I think we'll see how the recommendations and the program goes. All parties were interested in seeing increased enforcement and signed on to the agreement," Mr. Keough said.

The OHV working group was established last summer by DCR Commissioner Richard K. Sullivan Jr. and worked throughout the fall on the recommendations. The

group included representatives from a

cross-section of state and municipal agencies, environmental groups and OHV organizations. The roughly 34 members met five times from August to December.

The group was charged with assessing existing laws on OHV use and identifying opportunities and strategies to enhance their effectiveness in protecting public safety, the environment, and public and private property. Members also looked for ways to reduce unsafe and inappropriate use of OHVs and to identify ways to improve communication among all relevant groups, agencies and users to increase safe, responsible and legal OHV use.

"I am very pleased with the work this group has done to identify issues and problems regarding OHV use and to develop solutions and procedures to address those concerns," said Environmental Affairs Secretary

Bowles.

"The process involved a great deal of conversation among a number of stakeholders who have often found themselves at odds on these issues, but who came together and resolved their differences for the good of the public, the riders and the environment," he said.

Mr. Sullivan said the recommendations go a long way toward ensuring the safety and fun of OHV use, while still protecting private and public property. He said the DCR is dedicated to improving and enhancing the experience of

everyone using state parks, balancing their various interests and needs while protecting the rights of all and preserving our natural resources.

OHV use has grown dramatically in the last 15 years across Massachusetts and the nation. According to U.S. Forest Service figures, more than one-third of OHV riders are women, and nearly 60 percent of OHV riders are older than 30.

In addition, many private landowners have developed trail systems for their own OHV use, and a number of OHV clubs and organizations have access agreements with private landowners. A few communities also allow limited riding on their public land.

Although riding clubs have worked with DCR to help maintain OHV trails in the designated state forests, poor trail siting, design and construction, as well as limited maintenance, have led to trail deterioration, environmental damage and safety concerns.

The state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife also estimates that 280 miles of trails or roads on its properties have been created or affected by illegal OHV activity, and private landowners, utility companies, and cities and towns report similar illegal use on their properties.

"Illegal off-road vehicle activity is damaging sensitive lands, including wetlands and rare species habitats, all across the state," said E. Heidi Ricci, senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Audubon Society and a member of the working group.

"I look forward to seeing these recommendations implemented promptly to protect the nature of Massachusetts for the benefit of both people and wildlife," she said.

In addition to Massachusetts Audubon, about 20 state agencies and organizations were represented on the working group, including DCR, the state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, the Office of Law Enforcement, the state Department of Public Health, Massachusetts State Police, the Trustees of Reservations, New England Trail Riders Association, Northeast ATVers, and the Snowmobile Association of Massachusetts.

"I found this to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for motorized trail bike enthusiasts to work with numerous state agencies and legislative folks, in conjunction with various leading environmental organizations, to discuss and resolve concerns relating to motorized use in state forests and parks," said Frank Frey, a working group member who is a past president and now legislative director of the New England Trail Riders Association.

The

recommendations will be forwarded to legislators, law enforcement agencies and others directly involved, urging implementation.

Contact Bradford L. Miner by e-mail at bminer@telegram.com.

Legal OHV riding locations

Motorized off-highway vehicles can be driven on 155 miles of trails in Massachusetts state forests

Freetown-Fall River State Forest, Assonet

F. Gilbert Hills State Forest, Foxboro

Wrentham State Forest, Wrentham

Franklin State Forest, Franklin

Beartown State Forest, Lee, Great Barrington and Monterey

October Mountain State Forest, Lee, Lenox, Washington and Becket

Pittsfield State Forest, Pittsfield, Lanesboro and Hancock

Tolland State Forest, Tolland, Sandisfield and Otis

Source: State Department of Conservation and Recreation

What are off-highway vehicles?

- Four-wheel drive jeeps, automobiles and sport utility vehicles

- Motorcycles designed for off-highway use

- All-terrain vehicles, better known as ATVs, and other specially designed off road motor vehicles

Source: U.S. Forest Service

OHVs numbers rising

Includes ATVs and off-highway motorcycles

1993 2.9 million

1998 5.9 million

2001-2003 8.0 million

Source: Motorcycle Industry Council

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1, 3) Massachusetts Environmental Police Officer Andrew P. Beaulieu patrols the Quaboag Wildlife Management Area in East Brookfield on an all-terrain vehicle. The area is often used illegally by people on off-highway vehicles. (2) Massachusetts Environmental Police Officer Andrew P. Beaulieu patrols the Quaboag Wildlife Management Area along the CSX rail line, as a train zips by. The area is often used illegally by people on off-highway vehicles.

PHOTOG: T&G Staff/DAN GOULD
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 11, 2008
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