Ride or Wrong?
ATV owners could get a green light in the Green Mountain National Forest
Todd Sheinfeld climbs into the bed of his tan GMC pickup, hoists his leg over a new all-terrain vehicle and deftly backs it down an aluminum ramp to the Irish Hill trailhead, not far from Berlin Pond. Sheinfeld is 41, tall and lanky, with blue eyes, curly brown hair and a thin mustache. More importantly, he's a colorful spokesperson for the 2500-member Vermont All Terrain Vehicle Sportsman's Association. As VASA's executive director, he's gung-ho about trying to present the kinder, gentler face of all-terrain riding.
"We're not the foaming-at-the-mouth heathens we've been made out to be, chasing Thumper and running over babies," says Sheinfeld, firing up the Polaris ATP-330 I'll be riding. "We're about bologna sandwiches, picking berries and taking our kids fishing."
After my 15-second primer on the vehicle -- which amounts to Sheinfeld pointing out the brake, throttle and gear shift -- we don gloves, goggles and helmets and begin a slow, steady climb up the Daring Road Trail.
The old municipal dirt road that's now a popular site for ATV enthusiasts doesn't quite measure up to its daunting name. We never go faster than 15 miles per hour, and I keep Sheinfeld's white helmet in sight the whole time. A sticker on its back reads, "Stupid hurts." It's good advice for someone new to the 720-pound machine. As the trail gets rockier and steeper, the four-wheeler feels a bit tippy and I slow to a crawl. But within minutes, I get the feel for how the knobby tires handle on the boulder-strewn landscape. Apparently, that's a big selling point for ATVs: Even an inexperienced rider can handle one with virtually no training or instruction.
Sheinfeld stops occasionally to point out a berry patch or coyote scat pile. But near the top of the mountain, where dense thicket closes in around the trail, he shuts off his engine beside a human addition to the landscape: an illegally cut ATV trail.
"Now, this is the shit that really drives us nuts," he sighs, pointing to a fresh, muddy gash in the underbrush. "I can't understand why someone would do that. There are miles and miles of good trails up here."
Actually, it's the kind of damage that many Vermonters fear will soon start appearing in Vermont's largest block of public land: the Green Mountain National Forest. Currently, the USDA Forest Service is drafting a new management plan for the 400,000-acre GMNF, as it's required to do by law every 10 to 15 years. Essentially, the management plan is like a city zoning map, spelling out in detail how each tract of forestland will be designated, whether it's for logging, habitat protection, mixed-use recreation, wilderness area and so forth.
In April, the Forest Service announced its "preferred alternative" for the Green Mountains, which recommends, among other things, designating 17,000 acres of new wilderness area.
Vermont's conservation groups were shocked -- they hoped to add at least 80,000 acres to the existing 60,000. Even more controversial was the proposal to open up as much as 47 percent of the national forest to ATV activity, something that's never been allowed before in the GMNF.
To folks like Sheinfeld, ATVs aren't just an afternoon of fun with the kids; they're a symbol of freedom, power, independence and nearly unlimited mobility in the wilderness. But to others, ATVs are the antithesis of outdoor escape -- they're noisy, smelly, destructive machines that defile nature's last untrammeled sanctuaries of serenity.
Love them or hate them, ATVs cannot be ignored. Twenty years ago when the last forest management plan was drafted, ATVs were barely on planners' radar screens. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, annual sales of "OHVs," or off-highway vehicles, more than tripled between 1995 and 2003. There are now more than 5.6 million all-terrain vehicles in the United States, including about 89,000 in Vermont alone. Admittedly, some are used by farmers, loggers, firefighters and search-and-rescue teams. But the vast majority is for recreational use. A nationwide survey released in June by the Forest Service found that nearly one in four Americans ages 16 and older participated in OHV recreation at least once in the last year, making it one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in America.
As with most environmental battles, this one is polarized. The Forest Service will be hard-pressed to please everyone. ATV enthusiasts complain that the new plan offers them nothing more than the last management plan, which was adopted in 1987; environmentalists counter that opening up nearly half the national forest to ATV activity is an enormous step in the wrong direction. Other large tracts of public lands in New England, such as the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire, Adirondack State Park in New York and Baxter State Park in Maine, have all prohibited ATV use, they point out. If the Greens are opened to ATV use, they will become a magnet for the entire New England region.
Here's where it gets complicated: GMNF's planners say the draft management plan isn't a major departure from the way the forest has been managed for the last decade. Holly Knox, assistant planner at GMNF headquarters in Rutland, says that the 1987 plan actually allowed for the construction of ATV trails. But no user group was organized enough to come forward with a trail-building proposal.
Sheinfeld says his group was waiting on the GMNF, which has been "notoriously mute" on the subject of route planning. He laments, "To date, not one linear inch has been designated."
Even if the new management plan is essentially the same as the old management plan, it's sure to spur action on the part of ATVers. Knox contends that the plan the Forest Service favors would actually reduce the amount of acreage that could be opened to ATV trails, from 49 percent to 47 percent of the forest. More-over, she adds, any ATV corridors through the national forest would have to link to trails outside the GMNF. Self-contained trail systems within the forest would still be verboten.
"I think a lot of people think that we're going to have ATVs running rampant everywhere," Knox says. "That's just not the case."
Needless to say, others interpret the management plan quite differently. More than 10,000 people submitted letters and emails to the GMNF during the public comment period, which ended July 5. The Forest Service is now analyzing those comments before it releases its final management plan in February. But according to one review of the comments, an overwhelming majority of them expressed opposition to ATV use in the Green Mountains.
For his part, Sheinfeld -- who attended nearly all of the 80 or so public meetings sponsored by the Forest Service in the last year -- is skeptical that he'll ever be riding an ATV through the Green Mountains. He argues his case back at VASA's headquarters, a former beauty parlor just off Main Street in Montpelier and a stone's throw from the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Law Foundation. "We feel that 85 national forests out there in America have found a way to accommodate ATV use that is sensitive and environmentally conscious," Sheinfeld says.
"And yet, the Green Mountain National Forest hasn't found a way to do that."
When asked about illegal ATV trails such as the one we encountered, Sheinfeld contends that it's actually the dearth of legal ATV trails in Vermont that exacerbates the problem and leads "good, hard-working Vermonters" to break the law.
"Playing games of cat-and-mouse [with law-enforcement rangers] only makes us feel like second-class citizens," he says. Currently, there are only about 700 miles of legal ATV trails in Vermont, compared to more than 5000 miles of snowmobile trails in the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) network. VASA's goal, Sheinfeld adds, is to create a statewide ATV trail network similar to the VAST network. But that cannot be accomplished, he contends, without opening up north-south and east-west corridors through the Green Mountains.
VAST hasn't taken a formal position on whether ATVs should be allowed in the national forest, though the group supports the right of everyone to have a place to recreate legally, says VAST president Ann Shangraw. The issue poses a problem for her group, she says, since many private landowners who allow VAST trails across their land have stated that they won't do the same for ATVs. "As soon as they're able to establish a trail network, my personal belief is that trespass issues with ATVs will slowly diminish," Shan-graw says. "Most people will ride legally if given the chance to. But if the state's not going to step up to bat and help them establish a system, that's going to be very difficult to do."
Is illegal ATV activity in the Green Mountains on the rise? That depends who you ask. Paul White is patrol captain with the law enforcement unit that patrols the Green Mountain National Forest. According to his figures, the number of citations issued for "off-highway vehicle operations" have been declining, from 205 in 2003 to 127 in 2004. This year, he says, Forest Service law enforcement officers issued just 89 citations. And those figures include not just illegal ATV activity but all unauthorized motorized traffic on the national forests.
But those numbers are deceptive. White also points out that there are only four law enforcement rangers patrolling the Green Mountain, White Mountain, Finger Lakes and Allegheny National Forests, an area made up of 1.4 million acres of woodlands stretching from Pennsylvania to Maine. As he puts it, "Working ATV enforcement isn't exactly the easiest thing in the world."
In fact, environmental groups that document and photograph illegal ATV activity, such as Forest Watch in Montpelier, contend that the lack of adequate enforcement capacity has actually resulted in a marked increase in illegal ATV use. And they warn that opening up the national forest to ATVs will be like letting the genie out of the bottle.
The battle over ATVs -- in Vermont and elsewhere -- is sometimes characterized as a class issue. The Forest Service survey on national off-road vehicle activity found that, not surprisingly, the largest demographic of ATV users in Vermont are white males between the ages of 30 and 50, with high school diplomas and annual incomes between $30,000 and $50,000. Pro-ATV activists such as Sheinfeld often contend that it's the big environmental groups from outside the state that are keeping "real Vermonters" from enjoying ATVs in their own backyards.
But that argument doesn't hold water in the town of Lincoln, a quaint little hamlet nestled at the foot of Mount Abraham and surrounded on three sides by the Green Mountain National Forest. Lincoln is one of the few towns in Vermont with a working timber mill, general store and just one sidewalk. Among the 1200 or so residents who live here is a motley assortment of loggers, hunters, fishermen, birders, hikers, snowmobilers, environmentalists and other outdoor enthusiasts.
The politics of Lincoln r esidents differ depending on the issue, but there's a general consensus on this one: The health of the Green Mountain National Forest is essential for maintaining Lincoln's economic vitality and natural character.
"The Green Mountains are the heart and soul of this town," notes Lincoln Select Board member Ethan Ready. "As one Vermonter, I can say personally that an increase in ATV use would be problematic, as we've already seen significant soil erosion in recent years."
An avid trout fisherman, Ready is particularly concerned about the health of the New Haven River, which runs through his town. He believes that allowing ATVs in the river's upper headwaters, for example, would be harmful to the brook trout, an "indicator species" of the river's health.
"No longer can you catch a 3-pound brook trout in Vermont," Ready laments. "Nowadays, you do what you can to try to get one that's 12 inches."
Ready, son of former Vermont State Auditor Elizabeth Ready, emphasizes that he's speaking for himself and not on behalf of the Lincoln select board. Due to its close proximity to the national forest, the Forest Service held two public meetings in Lincoln. Afterwards, the three-member board submitted its comments expressing, among other things, its concern about potential ATV activity in the Greens.
"Many Lincoln residents enjoy snowmobiling and use the VAST trail system within the GMNF. We want to make sure that the management reclassification will support continued use of the VAST trails," the June 27 letter reads. "At the same time, we note that you will begin taking applications for trails for summer ORVs [off-road vehicles], a new use of the GMNF. We are concerned about this change, because of the potential for soil disturbance and erosion, and wonder if ORV use is compatible with resource management goals."
The select board's opinion on ATVs is just one paragraph in a four-page letter. What's revealing about it, though, is the distinction it makes between snow machines and all-terrain vehicles. Peter Sterling is an organizer with the Wilderness Society, one of many Vermont environmental groups that weighed in on the GMNF's draft management plan. He's also the only person outside the GMNF staff who has read through all 10,003 public comments -- a claim confirmed by Forest Service personnel in Rutland. Sterling contends that public sentiment on the ATV issue is unmistakable: More than 90 percent of the public comments ask the Forest Service not to allow them in the Green Mountains.
"I did not see a single letter that said, 'We do not want snowmobiles on the national forest,'" Sterling notes. "There is clearly a difference in the mind of the public between snow machines and ATVs."
Sterling acknowledges that many of the comments he saw were form letters and emails submitted by environmental groups and their members. Nevertheless, of the 10,003 comments, there were only 25 handwritten letters in support of ATV use in national forest, and another 94 handwritten letters supporting both ATV use and opposing more wilderness areas -- that is, areas that allow no vehicles of any kind, including snowmobiles and mountain bikes.
In contrast, Sterling says, 520 people wrote handwritten letters opposing all-terrain vehicles in the Green Mountains, while another 342 submitted handwritten letters opposing ATV trails and asking for more wilderness-area designations.
In light of such overwhelming public sentiment, Sterling concludes, it's not unreasonable for the GMNF to add another 80,000 acres of wilderness area. That would still leave 260,000 acres open for snowmobiles, ski area expansions, timber harvests, etc.
"No one's talking about locking down the forest," he says. "We're just talking about a proper balance."
The Forest Service emphasizes that its public-comment period was not, as GMNF's Knox puts it, "a public voting process." Nevertheless, a forest supervisor cannot easily ignore such overwhelming public sentiment.
At least, that's the opinion of Jim Furnish, and he should know. He was deputy chief of the USDA Forest Service until his retirement in 2002. During his 34-year career, Furnish helped draft and implement a number of forest management plans, including several that involved significant changes in ATV access. They included a controversial decision in Indiana's Hoosier National Forest about 20 years ago to close the entire forest to off-road vehicles.
Furnish also helped draft the management plan at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, which is considered one of the premier ATV-riding areas in the United States. With sand dunes that in places rise 500 feet high along the Pacific Ocean, the area receives intense ATV traffic. But ATVs were also doing a lot of harm to the park's more sensitive areas. Furnish was there when the Forest Service proposed scaling back ATV access. He received more than 25,000 public comments on the proposal. As he recalls, "This was like Armageddon to them." Due to the enormous public pressure, ATVs were allowed to continue operating in the dunes, but were banned in the most environmentally sensitive areas. Furnish believes that opening the door to all-terrain vehicles in the GMNF would be "a grave mistake."
"Sometimes the argument for appeasement, when you're trying to make everyone happy, is the wrong thing to do," he says. "From where I sit, to open up the Green Mountain National Forest to all-terrain vehicles is not very consistent with what Vermonters want."
Make no mistake, Furnish isn't some tree-hugging greenie, nor was he a lefty political appointee. As a career forester, Furnish is an expert on timber management, forest fires and road closures who rose through the ranks to the agency's number two spot. There, he worked on a number of issues ranging from fish and wildlife to motorized recreation to President Clinton's roadless initiative.
Furnish describes himself as "a little bit of an odd duck": a socially conservative Christian who voted for George W. Bush but who is also very pro-environment. And he readily admits he's now "disenchanted," and even "dismayed," with Bush's policies, particularly on the environment.
Furnish dismisses the suggestion that the Green Mountain's ATV proposal is being pushed from Washington, D.C. Forest supervisors such as GMNF's Paul Brewster, he says, have a lot of latitude when they draft a new management plan and must operate in the political and social climate where their forests are located.
"In my estimation, Vermont has chosen a future for itself that relies on retaining a lot of its New England charm and character," Furnish says. "When people come here, they're struck by its beauty and serenity and quietude. And when they leave, they want to come back and tell others it's special."
Furnish believes that the GMNF would be on solid political ground if it decided to back off from the ATV proposal. "If I were looking at these figures, I'd be very impressed. There's something about that 90 percent threshold that's very alluring," he says. "I would guess if Senator Leahy's office got a thousand handwritten letters on a topic, that'd be huge."
More importantly, Furnish suggests that once ATVs are allowed into the Green Mountains, it'll be hard to ever pull back from that decision.
"Right now you don't have ATV use on your forest. I think you'll rue the day you allow this," he says. "And you're probably going to look back 10 years from now and say, man, why did I ever do that?"