Vermont yanks rule letting ATVs on state land

Posted Nov. 24, 2011, at 8:34 p.m.

MONTPELIER, Vt. — The Shumlin administration on Wednesday formally announced something that had been expected: It is scrapping a rule put in place by the previous administration that opened up state lands to use by all-terrain vehicle riders.

Instead, the agency will allow short connector trails on a limited basis when they are needed to link ATV trail networks on private land, said Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz. She said it could do that under licensing authority the agency has had for decades to allow uses of state lands like the broadcast towers on top of Mount Mansfield.

The question of ATVs using state land has been hotly debated off and on for a decade or more. The administration of former Gov. Jim Douglas in 2009 put in place a rule opening state lands to ATVs at the discretion of the agency secretary, over the objections of a legislative committee that reviews such rules.

Supporters of allowing ATVs on public land say doing so is good for the economy and allows riders greater freedom to use the machines. Opponents cite damage to the environment, saying riders often tear up wetlands, scare wildlife and interfere with enjoyment of the woods by other users.

An environmental group, the Conservation Law Foundation, had sued to overturn the Douglas administration rule, but had asked the Washington Superior Court to put the case on hold while the Shumlin administration, which took office in January, put a new rule through a process that included a public comment period.

“There’s no question that the rule that opened up all state lands to ATVs at the discretion of the secretary (of Natural Resources) was too broad,” Christopher Kilian, director of CLF’s Vermont office, said Wednesday. As for the new plan of allowing limited ATV use under licensing agreements, he said, “We’ll have to take a hard look at any specific proposals that come in and the legal authority that ANR might be turning to.”

Markowitz said the agency received about 3,000 public comments on its proposal to repeal the Douglas administration rule and reinstate the general ban — with a few exceptions — on ATVs using state land. Public comments ran about 2-1 in favor of allowing the machines to use state property and against the agency’s repeal of the Douglas rule.

Markowitz said, though, that the legislative committee’s unanimous vote against the Douglas rule left it “vulnerable to legal attack, with little likelihood of prevailing in court.”

Danny Hale, executive of the Vermont ATV Sportsman’s Association, said Wednesday he was pleased the agency had arrived at a compromise and had not closed the door completely to ATVs on state land.

“The governor (Shumlin) has always spoken of trying to get it right. They didn’t think the rule was right. That was their story and they stuck to it,” Hale said. “As well, they stuck with what they said to us — that they would try to work toward very limited use under very limited conditions.”

“It appears we’re going to have an opportunity to move forward with a license agreement. It looks like things are looking up for us,” Hale said.

Markowitz said the agency this week had executed one license agreement for ATV use of state land — a narrow strip along a state highway in Brighton that ATV users wanted to use to connect two private trail networks. Two others are under review, she said: at Buck Lake in Woodbury and in the Les Newell Wildlife Management Area in Windsor County.

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