When the Abbotts of Waterboro head Down East to go blueberry picking on backwoods trails, they leave their ATVs at home and pile into one vehicle. Todd Abbott said his family of five prefers riding together in their side-by-side, or utility task vehicle.

“It’s fun to be able to get out to locations we have not been able to access as a family,” he said. “Originally, farmers were the ones who had them. Now people are buying them to do yard work, and older people like them because they’re more like a car. You don’t have to throw a leg over them.”

Maine ATV clubs report as many as half their members own side-by-sides, the supersized off-road machines that have grown in popularity over the past five years.

The vehicles also are at the center of a growing controversy in Maine, where they are taking a toll on the largest ATV trail system in the continental United States. Ninety percent of the 7,000-mile trail system is on private land.

The problem is the size of side-by-sides. While all-terrain vehicles have room for one or two riders and are up to 50 inches wide, side-by-sides fit as many as six and are up to 72 inches wide.

In 2010, the state established landowner permits that allow trails on private land to be no wider than 60 inches, said Brian Bronson, Maine’s ATV coordinator.

“None of the machines made at that time were wider than 58 inches,” said Bronson, who works for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. “We’ve managed under those agreements ever since. Meanwhile, the problem gets worse. We have repeatedly told the industry that our trail system is on private land and the landowners control what happens and so the manufacturers shouldn’t go wider.”

In New Hampshire and Vermont, laws were passed making side-by-sides illegal on certain trails. In Maine, some riders fear landowners will close their land completely to ATV use.

“There is a growing concern that more and more larger machines on the trail system will shrink the trails,” Abbott said.

Side-by-sides sell for $8,000 to $28,000 and have features such as power steering, heated cabs, bucket seats and power windows. Once purchased mainly by farmers and foresters, they’re now used more recreationally.

“It gets a lot of people outside that couldn’t otherwise,” said Duane Taylor, executive director of the National Off-Road Highway Vehicle Conservation Council. “They’re very popular.”

Sales have grown by 6 percent to 8 percent annually since 2012, according to Wells Fargo, a major financier of the power sport industry. Luke McCannell, sales manager at Bangor Motorsports, said sales at his shop are up 30 percent to 40 percent since 2013.

“The growth is fantastic,” McCannell said of side-by-sides. “It’s a strong family-oriented sport. You can buy one that supports six people. That plays well with a family.”

“A lot of people are switching over from ATVs to side-by-sides,” said Dennis Patenaude, a salesman at Reynolds Motorsport in Buxton. “It’s just like driving a car except you can take it in the wilderness.”

Side-by-sides also are attracting older riders.

“You’re seeing a lot more retired folks getting out on four-wheelers,” said Chris Gamache, New Hampshire’s trails chief. “The demographics of who is going in the woods is changing.”

TRAIL DAMAGE, SEEKING NEW LIMITS

Maine includes side-by-sides in its count for ATV registrations, which have been at roughly 70,000 each of the past five years. ATV registration brings in $3 million annually that goes to ATV clubs in grants to repair trails, and to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to pay for enforcement.

It’s not enough, Bronson said.

“What is happening now is we try to maintain what we have,” he said. “If there is a damaged trail and we don’t have the money, it doesn’t open.”

Ossipee Mountain ATV Club Trailmaster Roger Letendre said most trails in southern Maine are 60 inches wide, but people with 65-inch-wide machines still try to make them fit.

Alicia Cote drives her all-terrain side-by-side, vehicles that can cost from $8,000 to $28,000 and allow more older people to get access to remote woods and fields. The Cote families have constructed and maintain about 14 miles of ATV trails on their properties. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

“We’re trying to get the state to prohibit the sale of side-by-sides wider than 60 inches, unless it’s for private use,” Letendre said. “They take up more space on the trails, they chew up the trails, they tear up the mud.”

Gerry Marcoux in Dixfield bought his side-by-side four years ago to work on the ski glades at Black Mountain. But when the ski area opened its slopes to side-by-side races last year, Marcoux quit its board of directors.

“I knew it wasn’t going to end well, and it didn’t,” Marcoux said. “Those machines have crazy horsepower. I said it would tear up the mountain, and it did.”

Central Maine Power Co., which allows ATV trails on its properties, has concerns. CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice said this spring that Maine game wardens put up signs there to remind riders of restrictions that there is a 60-inches-wide limit on CMP’s 50 miles of trails.

Rice said deep ruts full of water on CMP land show the damage done by vehicles exceeding 60 inches.

“There is a requirement under the master license that (the Maine Warden Service is) to install signs, but that may not have been consistently followed,” Rice said. “So the signs are there now, and that should clarify what is and is not allowed on the corridor.”

RESTRICTIONS IN OTHER STATES

Whether the more powerful machines make the sport more dangerous is uncertain.

In Maine, there has been an average of four fatalities a year involving ATVs since 2010, according to the state. Nationally, there have been fewer than 900 fatalities on ATVs annually since 2003, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Three years ago, New Hampshire passed a law restricting the use of side-by-sides in the lower two-thirds of the state, where ATV trails are designed to be 50 inches wide. But in the northern third, ATV trails are now allowed to be 65 inches wide to accommodate side-by-sides. Trails there are still threatened by side-by-sides, Gamache said.

“Absolutely, we could lose access,” Gamache said of New Hampshire’s trails, which are mostly on private land. “The reality is the manufacturers are going to build what the consumer wants. The dealers aren’t going to tell people if you buy it you can’t ride it on the trails.”

Three years ago, Vermont lawmakers raised the minimum width of ATV trails from 60 to 64 inches. It was the second time that Vermont has changed its laws “to accommodate the manufacturers’ ever-increasing desire to make them bigger,” said Danny Hale, the Vermont ATV Sportsman’s Association director.

“We made it clear to manufacturers we are not interested in bigger, faster ATVs,” Hale said. “Unfortunately, the manufacturers don’t care.”

LEGISLATION LIKELY IN MAINE

ATV Maine, the state’s ATV advocacy group, would like to see similar laws here.

Real Deschaine, president of ATV Maine, wants to see side-by-sides defined in statute. Right now the term “ATV” in Maine law applies to both ATVs and UTVs.

“We’ve been trying for years to get the state to change the definition, but we never could,” Deschaine said. “Now that New Hampshire has changed the definition, maybe we can.”

State Rep. Danny Martin, who sits on the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, plans to sponsor an ATV bill next session.

“(ATV Maine is) concerned about this one model that could damage trails considerably,” said Martin, a Democrat from Sinclair. “The UTVs are quite popular up here. Most folks when they buy a new unit now, buy a side-by-side. As long as they are registered as an ATV and comply, the Maine Warden Service will allow them.”

Bronson thinks Maine law will soon change the sport here.

“The Legislature has the potential next session to define tighter restrictions, where you can buy it, but you can’t register it,” he said. “You can only use it on your land. If the industry keeps pushing, that’s possible.”

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