In Maine’s four-season, everybody-get-out-and-play culture, no outdoor activity inspires as much passion, both on the love side and the hate side, as ATV riding.

The haters typically picture four-wheelers as backwoods cowboys, probably drunk and from Massachusetts, ripping up the landscape as they roar past frightened deer, squashing squirrels and discarding beer cans in their wake.

The lovers — including the more than 10,000 state residents who are members of the state’s 147 ATV clubs — see riding as a way to socialize, spend time with their families and enjoy and respect nature as much as any hiker or hunter does.

One thing’s for sure, in a state where 90 percent of the land is privately owned, if nature lovers — from those in Birkenstocks to those on a totally ripped quad — are going to have access, everyone’s going to have to get along.

For the past 15 or so years, the state’s ATV riders, with help from the state Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, have been trying to make that happen.

“There are a lot of commonalities” between how ATV riders see themselves and how other outdoors lovers see themselves, Jessica Leahy told an audience recently at the Maine Lakes Resource Center in Belgrade Lakes.

Leahy, an associate professor with the University of Maine’s Department of Forest Resources, specializes in land access issues. She recently completed a survey of property owners and ATV users on how relations can be improved.

“Feeling respected is important,” Leahy said. That was a big issue for both sides. With everyone wanting the same thing, it shouldn’t be that hard to accomplish, right?

Maybe not. Maine has had a sticky private land access since 1641, when the Great Ponds Act was made law. That act, simplified, allows anyone to cross private land. The exception in 1641, as it still is, was that the land owner’s crops couldn’t be trampled.

The law has been tweaked over the years, most recently about 10 years ago, with the Landowner Permission Law. An ATV rider must have the permission of the landowner to operate on the property and in the case of agricultural property, must have written permission.

Leahy said one of the biggest issues landowners have is destruction, from littering to torn-up land. She said many are willing to let others use their land, but close it because of that destruction. State law allows private land to be closed to ATVs for “safety, environmental or management” issues.

Without access to private land, there is nowhere to ride. ATV clubs have been working since the 1990s to educate members, build and maintain a trail system and police riders who cause the problems.

The permission law spurred clubs to work with landowners, according to ATV Maine, and that’s helped build nearly 6,000 miles of trails in the state.

ATVs are also becoming more necessary for the state’s economy.

“The money spread around by ATVers ends up in the hands of the small rural business owners who need it most,” ATV Maine says on its website. The group, an association of ATV clubs, also points out that as the numbers of hunters and sportsmen in the state dwindles, “Businesses and sporting camps are turning toward the ATV industry” to make up for it.

Leahy said ATV use in the state brings an estimated $230 million a year into the state’s economy.

The clubs’ efforts are paying off. For instance, Fairfield earlier this year agreed to allow ATVs to use a section of Horn Hill and Martins Stream roads to connect trails in Oakland to the town’s trails.

Fairfield Town Manager Josh Reny said this week the signs that designate the stretch as part of an ATV trail are going up soon, but residents are aware and there hasn’t been much opposition. ATVs are already using the road, and the move regulates it.

Residents of the roads last winter who were aware of the request from the Central Maine ATV Club said they were fine with it.

“The clubs, they’ve been decent,” Gary Taylor, a 25-year resident of Horn Hill Road, told the Morning Sentinel. “They haven’t raised heck or anything.”

That’s a point of view that’s growing.

Leahy told the Belgrade crowd that ATV clubs have raised the image of the activity. She’s impressed with how much riders know about trails, safety and law.

Besides the respect issue,  another thing landowners and ATV riders have in common is that both groups think education is the key to everyone getting along. A state program for school-age children on outdoor ethics got a thumbs up from both sides in Leahy’s survey.

Of course, the landowners also said there should be more education for the ATV riders, and the ATV riders said there should be more for the landowners.

Baby steps.

“It’s about getting people out of the conflict areas and listening,” Leahy said.

To that end, she’s not a big fan of “no trespassing” signs.

If she were queen for a day, she’d do two things.

First, she would make all the dumps free of charge for one day, solving much of the illegal dumping problem that closes so much private land.

The second, she said, would be to change no trespassing signs to welcome signs.

Tell people what activities are OK and what kind of behavior is accepted and “you’re welcome on this land.”

 Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at [email protected] Kennebec Tales appears the first and third Thursday of the month.

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