All Terrain Vehicles on Public Lands?

By Beth Little

            The idea that we should allow all terrain vehicles (ATVs) on public lands in West Virginia is one that has been kicking around for years without much progress.  Now, as we approach the 2020 Legislative session, there are straws in the wind, indications that there is plenty of enthusiasm for the idea.

            The first was during the 2019 session.  There was a proposed resolution requesting that Congress take action to allow ATVs on federal land in West Virginia.  The resolution did not pass, either because it had little support or because it got lost in the hurly burly that is the Legislature.  

Had it passed it might not have made any difference.  Federal land in West Virginia is managed, for the most part, by the United States Forest Service.  It manages that land according to federal law and the Management Plan for each National Forest, not according to the wishes of the Legislature.  There is no indication that Congress would comply with the wishes of the West Virginia Legislature.

What the resolution tells us, however, is that there is interest at the West Virginia Legislature for ATVs on public lands.  

In what is a more substantive indicator of interest, Senator Mark Maynard announced at an interim committee meeting of the Committee on Parks, Recreation, and Natural Resources in September that he intends to propose a bill that would authorize ATVs on Wet Virginia’s public lands.

Finally, in October, Senator Maynard was named as Chair of the Government Organization Committee.  In an interview following his taking this new position, he said that one of his goals was to have an ATV trail on public land in West Virginia.

Even with all these indications of enthusiasm, there are a few things that the Legislature should think about before plunging headlong into ATV trails on public lands.

ATV trails on public lands are a bad idea.  But first, a discussion of ATV trails on private lands.

            ATV trails on private lands are a bad idea unless done right.  Doing it right is expensive.  

The Hatfield McCoy Trail system was started with hundreds of thousands of dollars from the new federal transportation legislation called ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) passed in 1991; and as the legislation has been renewed over the years (usually referred to as the RTP), Hatfield McCoy has continued to receive hundreds of thousands every year to satisfy the legislative mandate that 30% of the RTP funding be applied to motorized trails.  Plus, users at Hatfield McCoy are charged a fee.  

            This has resulted in a trail system that has regular maintenance, new trails to replace those being retired or restored, and comprehensive law enforcement.  Law enforcement is needed to protect the safety of riders from various dangerous practices such as riding without a helmet, carrying passengers, and allowing young riders on adult machines.  

            ATVs are heavy and powerful, but there is a particular feature that makes them more dangerous for under-aged riders.  On most ATVs the rear axle is fixed.  This means that to manage a curve, while the rider is leaning to the inside to prevent tipping over, he or she must release pressure on the inside footrest so the tire can slip, while maintaining pressure on the outside foot rest.  This requires a certain size and athletic dexterity in the rider.  There are smaller ATVs for younger riders.  

            Even on private lands, ATV trails should not be routed where they will disturb others, and they should not be allowed to create serious degradation of the land, which will impact the water.

            One problem with ATVs on public lands is that they are not compatible with other forms of recreation.  Even driven by sedate senior citizens, who want to visit wild areas that they lack the fitness to get to, they are noisy and intrusive.  Driven by those for the fun of riding, they are dangerous and destructive.  So they need separate trails, which brings up another problem.  

            One of the strongest activists for ATV trails on public lands in West Virginia was Jeff DeVol, president of the WVOHVA, and owner of an ATV dealership in Parkersburg.  He maintained that an ATV trail should be at least 60 miles long in order to provide an adequate riding experience; otherwise, there would be problems.  It takes a lot of acreage to provide 60 miles of trail that don’t interfere with other forms of recreation. 

            A major task of the law enforcement needed is preventing riding off-trail.  One pass of the knobby tires churns up the soil, and then it looks like another trail for others to follow.  Pretty soon there is major damage.

            Also, as explained above, ATV trails are expensive, and the problem with ATV trails on public lands is that even if a plan is done right with an adequate budget to start with, public budgets are not permanent.   They are subject to change over time.  To a new administration with new people and new priorities, the funding for ATV trails may look like a good place to make cuts.  SB 676 (considered during the 2019 Legislative session) would establish a fund much like the federal RTP, but even a fund has to be reauthorized.  Without continuous funding for maintenance and law enforcement, an ATV trail would become a disaster.

            The federal RTP funds, administered by the West Virginia DOH, have been used to establish and maintain dozens, if not hundreds, of trails in West Virginia over the years, many of them on public lands. Of particular note is the MRTC (Mon River Trail Conservancy) system in northern WV, which provides many many miles of popular non-motorized trails.  

            A Recreational Trails Advisory board (WVRTAB), appointed by the governor, evaluates grant applications for trails and makes recommendations, through the DOH, to the governor.  There have been some grant applications for motorized trail systems in WV other than Hatfield McCoy, and both the WVRTAB and the DOH have given them priority in an attempt to balance the Hatfield McCoy funding, but the proposed trails have failed – some to even get off the ground, and the rest after only a year or two.  Senator Maynard (our legislators?) would be advised to consult with staff at the DOH to learn why.  

            Senator Maynard (our legislators) would do well to rely on years of expertise from the WV DOH and the Hatfield McCoy system about running ATV trails instead of listening to lobbyists who are working for the profits of out-of-state corporations.  

            To those senior citizens and other disabled people who long to experience back country without the required physical effort, I suggest they employ a tour service that provides llamas, horses, or mules.  It can’t be as expensive as purchasing and maintaining an ATV.  

Beth Little served for many years on the WV Recreational Trails Advisory Board by appointment of three different governors.