Land Use

ATVs Ride Roughshod Over R.I.’s Protected Open Space

All-terrain vehicles are prohibited from most public open space in Rhode Island. (istock)

All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) have made big headlines during the past year. The city of Providence has taken measures to crack down on usage, seizing 30 ATVs in the last two weeks of August, up from 50 seized annually over the past four years. Outside Rhode Island’s capital, ATVs and other off-road vehicles remain a consistent problem on protected lands.

Earlier this year, drivers of off-road vehicles breached two historic stone walls in Cumberland so their ATVs could enter the property.

“It was actually a neighbor [to the land trust], we could see the tracks leading up to his garage,” said Randy Tuomisto, president of the Cumberland Land Trust. “All over our property there is evidence of ATV usage.”

The Cumberland Land Trust owns and maintains about 640 acres. Signs are posted letting visitors know what is permitted and prohibited. ATVs are prohibited.

Tuomisto said ATVs are a constant issue, to the point where if the land trust is considering buying a new piece of property, it seriously examines the likelihood of current or future ATV usage on the land.

“We have turned down properties where the ATV usage is so bad that we know we couldn’t control it, because of its huge jumps and everything else in there,” he said.

The land trust repaired the wall and filed a police report. Tuomisto said the resident responsible for the damage was apologetic and even helped with repairs.

Damage to another stone wall was too wide to repair, so the trust put up a gate. There have been no new serious incursions on the land, according to Tuomisto.

When it comes to conserved lands, neighbors frequently think they have the right to go on the land even if it is private property. At Wolf Hill Preserve, managed by the Smithfield Land Trust, ATVs and sometimes motorcycles enter illegally.

Paul Harrison, chairman of the Smithfield Land Trust, said the trust’s properties saw a big uptick in ATV usage and complaints last year. Harrison posted signage along all entrances to Wolf Hill prohibiting motorized vehicles. But mostly, he said, just talking to ATV riders has curbed a lot of the behavior.

“I try stopping them and explaining to them in a reasonable manner why they can’t go in,” Harrison said.

Violations of the prohibition carry fines up to $500. But Harrison said even with the uptick in ATV activity last year, the properties didn’t experience significant damage.

This past winter, off-road vehicles tore a trail through Knight Farm off Burlingame Road in Cranston. West Bay Land Trust president Douglas Doe said the vehicles damaged wetlands, underbrush and trees. ATVs and other motorized vehicles are prohibited on the property.

The Cumberland Land Trust believes encouraging hiking is the best way to deter the illegal use of motorized vehicles on conserved lands. The land trust recently completed an eight-year project to install new trail systems for hikers. Hiking on Cumberland Land Trust property went up 70 percent over the course of the project, according to Toumisto.

ATVs damage historical landmarks, disturb habitats, destroy stream crossings, tear up vegetation and cause soil erosion. As ATVs drive across conserved lands their weight — anywhere from 400 to 1,000 pounds — squeezes air out of healthy soil, compacting it. When rain falls on compacted soil, the ground cannot absorb the water, causing runoff.

Those washed-away sentiments will disturb aquatic habitats for fish, amphibians and other wildlife. Sediment washed into waterbodies can block light for photosynthesis, impair a waterbody’s ability to provide oxygen, and wetlands can lose their function as natural filters to clean water. Compacted soil also interferes with root growth in plants, including those that wildlife may feed on. Soil erosion exposes roots, damages trees and destroys trails for hikers.

As on land trust properties, ATVs have also been a problem on Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) lands. DEM reported 41 citations of ATVs operating illegally on state lands last year, 35 in 2019 and 33 in 2018. So far this year, 25 citations have been issued.

DEM regularly sees ATV and other motorized vehicle use at all management areas. DEM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife regularly receives calls complaining of ATV riders ruining hunts.

Last year at the Nicholas Farm Management Area in Coventry, DEM responded to complaints of ATV riders ruining crops of hay the farm harvests. Workers put up barricades off the bike path near Carbuncle Pond, but dirt bikes simply drove in between the boulders from the management area, according to DEM.

“All one needs to do is take a walk through Nicholas Farm or the gravel bank at Big River and it likely will not be long until an ATVer or dirt biker comes flying by,” said Michael Healey, DEM’s chief public affairs officer.

ATV riders injure themselves too, providing the state extra concern since many of DEM’s managed lands are — by Rhode Island standards anyway — remote. Riders broke bones in two incidents in 2019 and this year, and one rider in 2020 ended up with a puncture wound.

“Typically, DEM will try to cordon off any access points, usually by installing some sort of barrier such as logs or boulders, but it’s easy for someone riding a dirt bike to steer around whatever impediment we’ve installed,” Healey said.

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  1. …And an off-road Jeep passenger from Rockland MA, died last January in a sand pit roll-over off Munyon Trail during a mid-night excursion through the vast ATV forest playground that informally exists along the Connecticut border in Burrillville—a remote area that is composed of the Buck Hill Boy Scout Reservation, the George Washington Wildlife Management Area, and State park and privately protected lands over the border in Connecticut. The ATV-ers have blazed trails all through these woods–including all-night trails blazed with metal reflectors—-established overnight party grounds, huge resulting trash middens, numerous "mud-bogs" for "mud-bogging," have dug miles of deep ruts into the Algonquin gas pipeline right of way with monster mud-bogging trucks—Is this, or is that not a catastrophe waiting to happen?—and the National Grid power line ROW that intersects in this forest, the two providing wide regional access to riders from far distant points in Massachusetts and Connecticut. A major bust was attempted in 2019 by State and Burrillville police when 11 riders were arrested on the Natl Grid ROW where it crosses the extra-sensitive, high conservation value bottom lands of the Clear River valley downstream of Wallum Lake. …Hiking around there in the dark on a Saturday night in July, you wouldn’t be surprised to encounter The Outlaw Josey Wales.

    Just say, "I’m looking for the party," and he’ll politely point out the direction.

  2. Weather you are in remote wildlife areas or walking on a sidewalk in Providence, irresponsible ATV use both a safety hazard and an environmental an environmental concern.

  3. Overhyped nonsense. This article over-inflates every damage that an atv causes to the environment and over-looks the damage caused to the environment by every other human activity. It claims that atvs average 400-1000 pounds and “squeezes the air out of healthy soil”. Atvs average 500 lbs and under (rider and atv combined), but thats not heavy enough to portray the image of a nature stomping steamroller of death that they want. Have you ever seen a well used hiking trail? The healthy soil has the air stomped out of it, creating a hard compacted surface that denies vegetation growth and creates runoff. The hikers destroy vegetation and are more likely to bring trash into the forest, as well as disturb hunts. This article tells you directly that they spent 8 years building trails in the forest……because they wanted to protect the forest from the development of ……trails. It says 2 atv riders had broken bones last year. How many hikers injure themselves in these remote areas?
    Get real, this is fantastic hypocrisy. Your concern is not for the safety of riders or for the environment (you pollute more by driving your car around sightseeing or antiquing). No, your problem is that you are small minded and biased. You want to stop the illegal spread of atv trails? Use some public space to create legal trails. Until you do, you’ll continue to cry to each other every time another hype-piece like this one is excreted.

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