A bill in the Maine Legislature seeks to ban all-terrain vehicles wider than 65 inches and over 2,000 pounds from the state’s trails. In recent years, manufacturers of larger ATVs have been making them wider and heavier. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

A bill before the Maine Legislature would place size and weight limits on larger all-terrain vehicles that contribute to erosion on the state’s 6,500-mile ATV trail system, one of the largest in the country. 

The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Tim Theriault of China, takes aim at the largest of the so-called “side-by-side” ATVs that have surged in popularity in recent years. The proposal also would increase the annual ATV registration fee by $25 to help pay for repair and construction of trails.

The measure, “An act to clarify all-terrain vehicle registration requirements and establish regular maintenance of designated state-approved all-terrain vehicle trails,” will be discussed in a virtual public hearing at 10 a.m. Wednesday by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Theriault, committee co-chair, believes the committee will endorse the bill. An identical measure was approved unanimously by the committee last year before the Legislature adjourned early because of the coronavirus pandemic, at which point the bill died.

“We’ve done a lot of the work already. We had many, many meetings last year to get this version of the bill,” said Theriault, whose bill is also supported by the state’s ATV advocacy group.

Side-by-sides seat two to six passengers and are far bigger than a traditional one-seat ATV. They run as wide as 70 or more inches and weigh 2,000 to 3,000 pounds, making some as large as a small pickup truck.

Erosion from these “oversized ATVs,” as the bill refers to them, has led some landowners to close some trails – more than 80 percent of the system runs across private land. The bill would limit the size of ATVs allowed on the state’s trail system to 65 inches wide and 2,000 pounds.

The number of registered ATVs in Maine has steadily climbed from 45,000 in 2000 to 72,000 in 2019. A state ATV Task Force reported to the Legislature in January 2020 that a quarter of Maine’s registered ATVs in 2019 – 18,000 – were side-by-sides, although just 98 were wider than 65 inches.

The bill that seeks to ban “oversized ATVs,” which are much larger than the one shown above, is aimed at protecting the state’s 6,500-mile trail system. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife did not have registration numbers for 2020, but the total is believed to be higher.

“Game wardens would tell you that they saw more ATVs out on the trails last summer than ever,” said Mark Latti, IFW’s communication director.

In the past 10 years, manufacturers of side-by-sides also called utility task vehicles have continued to make them wider, larger and heavier.

“The bridges can’t accommodate the larger ATVs. That’s the problem. Every time a manufacturer makes the machines larger, we can’t use them on our trail system,” Theriault said.

“The size started exploding several years ago,” said John Raymond, vice president of ATV Maine and president of the Northern Timber Cruisers in Millinocket. “The manufacturers are bringing up the speed on ATVs and the number of people they’re carrying. … Once you deal with more speed and more weight the only way to make it stable is to make it wider.”

The bill has a grandfather clause that would let ATVs wider than 65 inches and heavier than 2,000 pounds to use the trails unless a landowner prohibits them if they are registered before Aug. 1. The bill also would adopt a best-practice standard for state-funded ATV trails and create an annual state inspection of those trails to make sure they meet that standard.

In addition, the bill would raise ATV fees $25 across the board to help pay for repairing and widening the ATV trail system, where 65 inches would become the standard width. Sixty inches is currently the standard for the state trail system, although that width is not set in statute. Roughly 10 percent of the ATVs registered in Maine in 2019 exceeded 60 inches in width.

People could still use side-by-sides wider than 65 inches or heavier than 2,000 pounds that are not registered before Aug. 1 – but only on their own property or on a frozen body of water.

The registration fee for residents would increase from $45 to $70 and for non-residents from $90 to $115. That would come two years after ATV registration fees were raised $12 for residents and $24 for non-residents.

Theriault said he isn’t sure how much it would cost to widen the entire 6,500-mile trail system, but it would take years. The fee increase for this year would help begin that work, as well as fund the repair of damaged trails.

The bill has the support of ATV Maine, the state’s 3,000-member ATV advocacy group, although its officers said they hope a more sustainable solution for funding trails is found in the future. Specifically, ATV riders want a higher percentage of the state gas tax earmarked for ATV trail funding to bring those clubs more in line with what snowmobile clubs get for trail maintenance. 

Theriault’s bill does not address the gas tax. 

“We are supporting the bill because we support the landowners. Without the private landowners, we wouldn’t have any trails,” said ATV Maine’s Raymond. “But we know ATV registration is going up. How is it that 20 years later, we’re still only getting $157,000 from the gas tax? They need to straighten out the gas tax.”

Since 2002, $1.5 million in gas tax revenue annually has funded snowmobile trail maintenance, while just $157,000 has gone to ATV clubs to maintain that trail system. When the gas tax allocation was set by the Legislature in 2001, there were 110,000 registered snowmobiles and just 40,000 ATVs in Maine. In 2019, there were 72,000 registered ATVs and 88,000 snowmobiles, according to the state.

Meanwhile, the cost of building and maintaining ATV trails and bridges in the state trail system has increased – from $1.4 million in 2018 to $2 million in 2020, according to ATV Maine. The clubs are forced to try to make up the shortfall through fundraisers etc.

Theriault agreed a new source of funding for ATV trails needs to be found eventually.

“There’s no question. But it takes legislation and due diligence to come up with an equitable solution, and ATV clubs need to do that. They’re a little behind the snowmobile clubs,” Theriault said.

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