Our Turn: Debate over ATV use on local trails deserves transparency

For the Monitor
Monday, August 14, 2017

Marty Basch’s “Taking a ride on the wild side” (Monitor Sports, July 25) may have been up north, but it reminds us of tensions brewing closer to home.

Love them or hate them, off-highway recreational vehicles (OHRVs, also known as ATVs) can quickly polarize a community. Such has been the case with the expansion of state-sanctioned OHRV trails in the Mink Hills of Henniker, Warner, Hopkinton and Bradford.

Adding to growing debate, Gov. Chris Sununu signed House Bill 237, a noncontroversial law to study helmet and safety restraint laws for youth operators, but the bill included an inflammatory, last-minute and nongermane amendment to re-establish a disputed OHRV trail connector in Henniker.

This is the first state-permitted OHRV connector trail across a major highway (Route 114) in southern New Hampshire. This precedent-setting act was done without broad public input and bypassed the state’s OHRV connector permitting process. It was enacted despite the long history of OHRV trespass, breaking and entering, and vandalism near the trail.

Perhaps more significantly, the Henniker OHRV connector trail was authorized without serious consideration of the larger impacts on the Mink Hills conservation area. Ditto for town policy decisions in the area to open up Mink Hills Class VI town roads to OHRVs.

Despite its 20,000-plus acres, Mink Hills is no Jericho Park. It is a patchwork of private and public land with few houses but significant conservation values, and only 30 minutes from the state capital. And the Mink Hills area is now on the official state of New Hampshire OHRV map.

OHRVs benefit from an impressive financial feedback loop. More OHRV sales lead to more OHRV riders, and thus more OHRV registration fees, with more revenue for N.H. Fish and Game and the N.H. Bureau of Trails, which means promoting OHRV ridership, which leads to pressure to create more trails. What’s not to love? A lot.

Increased access by OHRVs to the Mink Hills has progressed without thoughtful consideration of the already significant taxpayer and landowner cost to conserve and protect the Mink Hills or the impacts on other stakeholders, including nearby residents, land owners, hikers, mountain bikers, foresters and conservationists.

The expansion of OHRV traffic in this region has led to issues with trespass and property, trail and road damage. Fearing OHRV trespass, will more property owners post their land resulting in restricted use for other stakeholders? Will land owners avoid forestry operations because of worries that open land will get torn up by reckless riders? Will land values decrease?

We don’t know the answers to these questions, but these larger issues need to be asked and discussed. Balancing nonmotorized uses, forestry and conservation interests with OHRV recreation is an ongoing challenge. Town officials, conservation organizations and landowners are struggling to have input on where these trails should and shouldn’t go.

It’s important to recognize that most OHRV riders are respectful community members. This is especially true of local OHRV club members who work hard to maintain trails and landowner relationships. However, there are a small percentage of OHRV riders who are intent on disruptive behavior.

Unlike motor vehicle users, reckless OHRV users benefit from anonymity. In New Hampshire, OHRVs don’t have the easy-to-read license plates required in other states. This poses an enforcement challenge, which leads to unsolved OHRV-related incidents and crimes, despite considerable efforts by local police and OHRV clubs.

For the sake of quality of life in New Hampshire, we need to strengthen the state’s OHRV regulations and enforcement capacity to encourage lawful, respectful use, and balance OHRV ridership with non-motorized recreational uses.

As state-sponsored OHRV trails expand beyond the “Ride the Wilds” area of northern New Hampshire into more heavily populated regions of the state, the state permitting process needs to recognize the complex issues that will arise.

For starters, the state should expand the requirements for permitting OHRV connector trails in southern New Hampshire to include public hearings so that neighborhoods and property owners, not just OHRV clubs, can have a say in where these connector trails are best located.

And importantly, the people in the towns of central New Hampshire need a voice at the local and state level in how our diverse interests will be balanced.

The Mink Hills is a rare and beautiful place close to home, and significant investments have been made to protect its wild and unfragmented landscape. Its value depends on preserving its open and quiet space, forest productivity and balanced uses.

The process of opening it up to increased OHRV traffic should be deliberate, transparent, limited and done in a way that protects the rights of residents, property owners and other stakeholders.

(Ross Bennett lives in Henniker. Alice Chamberlin lives in Warner. Andy Duncan lives in Concord.)