Larger off-road vehicles call side-by-sides have been growing in popularity, but much of Maine’s ATV trail system isn’t wide enough to handle them. Staff photo by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The growing popularity of large off-road vehicles is threatening the future of ATV riding in Maine.

Nearly half of Maine’s all-terrain vehicle trail system could close if the state doesn’t pay for the widening and maintenance of the trails to accommodate the larger vehicles, according to a task force formed to address concerns about the increasingly popular sport.

The task force is proposing to restrict the size of ATVs allowed on the state’s trails, but the recommended 65-inch-wide, 2,000-pound limit may not be strict enough to protect private property that makes up the vast majority of the trail system, without making improvements to it.

Closing trails instead, however, would be a threat to both the state’s economy – the activity contributed $754 million at last report in 2012 – and to the owners of the 72,000 ATVs registered last year. But those riders are sure to oppose the increase in ATV registration fees that the task force is proposing to cover the trail improvement and maintenance costs, according to an advocacy group that represents them.

The ATV Task Force will present its recommendations to the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee on Monday.

Bills aimed at addressing the larger vehicles – and the damage they caused to private property – prompted Gov. Janet Mills to form the task force, which started meeting in September. Of the 6,500-mile trail system, the largest in the country, 86 percent is on the property of some 3,200 private landowners.

“When I think of a traditional sit-on ATV, it’s a small one- or two-person vehicle. What we’re seeing more and more of is side-by-sides that are like a Jeep or small truck,” said Ethan Bessey, the fifth-generation owner of a Hinckley-based timber company that allows ATV trails in its woodlots. “Our land is working forestland and 99 percent of the people get it. But there have been instances where people go in and wreck it – and it costs tens of thousands of dollars to repair.”

While there is currently no limit on the size of ATVs allowed on state trails, the standard in Maine has been 60 inches since 2008, and much of the trail system only accommodates ATVs of that width. But more and more ATVs used in Maine are the super-sized versions, called side-by-sides or utility task vehicles (UTVs), which seat four or six passengers and can be up to 70 inches wide. According to the task force, a quarter of Maine’s registered ATVs in 2019 – or 18,000 – were side-by-sides, and of those, 7,600 exceeded 60 inches in size (just 98 were wider than 65 inches).

NOT IN MY BACKYARD

Dave Anderson happily allows a mile of ATV trail to run across his 174-acre property in Topsham. A longtime member of the Topsham Trailriders ATV and Snowmobile Club, Anderson owns a traditional two-seat ATV. He does not favor the idea of allowing 65-inch machines on his property.

In other, drier parts of the country, Anderson said, the larger-sized ATVs may work, but it’s a bad idea in New England’s wet climate, where heavier machines can cause erosion and gutted fields.

“Nobody wants a scar on their land,” Anderson said.

Larger off-road vehicles call side-by-sides have been growing in popularity, but much of Maine’s ATV trail system isn’t wide enough to handle them. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

If the state allows larger machines, he said, it had better be ready to increase enforcement by game wardens. If the local club and the state could not maintain the ATV trail on his property, he would shut it down.

The Topsham ATV club maintains about 19 miles of trail across private land and 3 miles on town land, said Ed Caron, another local ATV rider and the director of the town’s solid waste facility who oversees the town section of the trail.

He, too, said larger machines likely will mean more damage and widening virtually the entire trail in Topsham.

“That big of a machine is almost a car,” Caron said. “I enjoy riding my side-by-side with my wife. But my machine is about 1,000 pounds. I’d almost rather the state left it up to local clubs on whether they want a wider trail or not.”

And longtime ATV rider Ronnie Green, the president of the ATV club in Plymouth, agreed “100 percent” that the proposed changes are going to need increased enforcement by Maine game wardens.

“Most landowners will keep (trails) open if the club fixes what some idiot did – or you beg forgiveness. We do that quite a lot, and I’m getting tired of doing it,” Green said.

The ATV Task Force report did not recommend increased funding for the Maine Warden Service to increase enforcement on ATV trails.

Brian Bronson, the state’s ATV coordinator of 33 years and a task force member, said the landowners he has spoken with are fine with wider trails, as long as the trail system is well maintained to a higher standard – and there is funding to assure it is.

“The biggest fear is if we implement this and (the Legislature) doesn’t provide funding to get it done,” Bronson said in reference to the proposed registration fee increase. “Then we are going to be forced to close a lot of trails. That has a lot of people nervous.”

FUNDING QUANDARY

Bronson said widening and maintaining the state’s trail system will cost from $1 million to $2.2 million, depending on how many miles of the state network remains open.

The task force recommended increasing ATV registration fees by $29 for residents, which would rise from the current $45 to $74; and by $44 for nonresidents, which would go from the current $90 to $134, in order to completely fund the maintenance of and repairs to all of the state’s 6,015 miles of off-road trails. Smaller increases of $15 for residents and $30 for nonresidents would provide an additional $1 million to widen and maintain 4,700 miles of trail – and only 1,300 miles would have to close.

If nothing is done to bring in more revenue, Bronson said, half of the state’s ATV trails – or 3,000 miles – would close because they already need maintenance. And if the new standard of trail accommodates 65-inch-wide machines, many trails will need to be upgraded.

“If we don’t find a funding solution, then the other solutions don’t work,” Bronson said. “We need to hold the trails to a higher standard. We need $600 a mile to end up with a trail acceptable to landowners; right now we have $200 a mile for funding.”

Many riders, including ATV Maine Vice President John Raymond, oppose another registration fee increase a year after residents’ ATV registration went up $12, to $45, and nonresidents’ rose by $24, to $90.

Moreover, none of that money would go to enforcement, Bronson said. And enforcement is something many riders worry about.

Raymond, the president of the Millinocket ATV club, said the additional funding needed should come from a higher appropriations of the gas tax to ATV clubs – at least on par with what snowmobile clubs get.

Currently, the ATV clubs get $157,000 for trail maintenance from the gas tax – compared to snowmobile clubs’ $1.5 million – an appropriation set in law in 2001, back when there were 110,000 registered snowmobiles and about 40,000 ATVs, Bronson said. Considering that today there are 72,000 registered ATVs in Maine and 88,000 snowmobile sleds, the amount is not equitable, Bronson said.

“The gas tax was brought up – but we were not allowed to address it. That is the white elephant in the room that needs to be addressed,” he said.

Bronson doesn’t think the gas tax is an option that will be considered at this time.

“The Legislature is looking at a shortage of money for roads and funding human services,” Bronson said. “Everyone is in the Legislature looking for money.”

Other riders suggested that, instead of raising fees, the Legislature should require Maine riders to join ATV clubs to help raise money, as New Hampshire and Vermont do. Currently, only about 15 percent of riders belong to clubs, Bronson said. In the past, he said, bills proposing a mandatory club membership (or an extra registration fee for those who don’t join one) were killed in the Legislature, even though some large landowners in Maine, like the Bessey and Irving forest companies, require it for access.

“If 75 percent of those people paid $20 to join a club, it would result in $1.5 million a year. And we’d have the money to fix the trails,” Bronson said. “That would solve the problem right there.”


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