December 23, 2012

ATV clubs sprout up to improve landowner relations

Clubs provide leadership, both as an example of good riding and as points of access for public concerns

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD -- During the past 15 years, the culture of all-terrain vehicle riders has changed, leading to a more positive relationship with the broader community.

click image to enlarge

All-terrain vehicle club members are working to gain access to area landowners to connect existing trails for users. From left are Robert Burns, Nora Foster, Vicki Eastman and Jim Moore.

Staff photo by David Leaming

One example of this growing trend can be seen in Fairfield, where many of the people who ultimately will decide whether ATVs should have access to a stretch of public road say clubs have helped their cause by working to minimize the instances of irresponsible riding.

Most people have seen the kind of ATV riding that sets their teeth on edge.

"You don't want people being clowns on their ATVs, riding too fast or pulling out into traffic," said Gary Taylor, a 25-year resident of a road where ATV traffic soon may be allowed.

That kind of behavior is becoming less common in the face of organized groups of responsible people who want to make ATV riding more accepted, supporters claim.

"The clubs, they've been decent," Taylor said. "They haven't raised heck or anything."

Taylor's sentiment, that organized ATV clubs are decent, may hold sway in the debate about whether ATV traffic should be allowed on certain roads.

Will Harris, director of the state's Division of Parks and Public Lands, said organized clubs are a relatively recent feature of the ATV community, a feature that is helping to build positive relations.

In 1995, he said, there were just 12 clubs in the state. Today there are 147.

"That's why I think you're seeing this rapid change in how people are viewing them," he said. "The clubs are kind of self-regulating."

Harris said the same wave of cultural transformation went through the ranks of snowmobilers in the decades before ATV clubs began to form. That head start is part of the reason why snowmobile trails cover about 14,000 miles in the state, while ATV trails are still at about 6,000 miles.

Harris said ATV clubs can serve as an outlet for municipal officers who are asked to rein in rogue riders.

"In general, what we have seen is that organized clubs make a much better impression on the towns and give the towns a way to be able to address things," Harris said. "They can talk to the club president if they have a problem and that can get things resolved."

The efforts seem to be paying off statewide.

"We really do try to get club leaders to be leaders and to help with setting a good example for their clubs," he said. "There is that peer pressure. I think that has really worked to help these clubs be seen in a good light."

Organized clubs also are more likely to engage in community charities, or at least they are more visible when they do so, Harris said. One of many examples can be found in Oakland's Messalonskee Trail Riders, where club president Vicki Eastman said members have organized to help local animal shelters and food banks.

In Fairfield, Eastman's trail riders and Fairfield's Central Maine ATV Club have asked the town for permission to use parts of Horn Hill and Martins Stream roads. If the town agrees, groups of ATV riders will be allowed to drive their vehicles from one trailhead to another, dramatically expanding the distance a rider can travel.

Eastman said a currently isolated trail system in Fairfield would be joined with a larger system that extends through parts of Waterville and into Oakland.

The permission won't be granted unless Fairfield's town council adopts an ATV-specific speed ordinance of 25 mph along the path.

Town Manager Josh Reny said the Town Council will address the matter in January, when newly elected members take their seats.

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