Editorials and opinions

The ATV debate – been there, done that, already

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The ATV wars rage on with more and more towns, in some cases grudgingly, opening their roads to them.  Newport, surprisingly, conservative as it is, liked the idea of allowing the vehicles on city streets and the city council is currently scheduled to vote on an ATV ordinance October 21. 

When snow machines first appeared in the Northeast Kingdom, this writer recalls enthusiasm, even a sense of wonder.  People who don’t ski, or engage in other expensive winter activities, suddenly had something fun to do when the snow flew.  Snowmobiles didn’t cost a year’s income then.  They were clunky and unreliable, but they provided a means for a farmer or day worker, and their families, to get out in winter and have a little fun. 

Yes, some people complained about noise, the lights at night, but over time, snow machines were embraced not just for their recreational value, but also for economic reasons.  Snowmobilers got together with friends and went for long rides on the ever growing network of groomed VAST trails.  They ended up at restaurants and bars in out-of-the way places, and eventually it was acknowledged that this new form of recreation was making a significant economic contribution to rural Vermont. 

Then the snow stopped falling, or at least fell a lot less (we’ll pretend last winter didn’t happen), and we found ourselves writing stories about businesses going out of business because of it.  Snowmobilers can’t snowmobile without snow. 

For some years, we wrote about how much snowmobilers contributed to the economy, and for some years after we wrote about how the economy was hurting because of the lack of snowmobilers. 

In general, people aren’t stupid, and if they’re going to invest major money in an off-road vehicle, they want it to be one they can actually use more than a few times a year. 

So, gradually, people traded in their snow machines for all terrain vehicles, which are not weather dependent.  We don’t mean that literally, of course.  But while there are still snowmobile enthusiasts, there are a lot more ATV enthusiasts. 

Which makes sense if you’re the kind of person who enjoys riding around the woods and fields and town roads with friends, maybe stopping for a beer and a bite to eat together. 

ATVs, like snowmachines, have evolved.  And most people who enjoy this form of recreation are riding in side-by-sides — open air machines with seats that can accommodate several people, or at least two, rather than the old three- or four-wheelers that farmers and sugarmakers straddle and use to get around their land.  The whole family is now going for a ride.

The recreational ATV users have roofs over their heads.  They’re not dependent on weather; they can ride if it rains.  They can spend months, with no hindrance except municipal road policy, at their preferred form of recreation, and in the process, they spend money at gas stations, restaurants, bars, and stores. 

So the controversy is, in some ways, puzzling.  It seems the issues that raise people’s hackles — noise, speed, young riders — were addressed, and largely settled, long ago with snowmobilers. 

Of course there will always be outliers, but there are rules, just like there are with cars, which are enforceable.  Cars don’t speed? 

The road by this writer’s house leads to Parker Pie in West Glover, a popular pizza restaurant.  Side-by-sides often go by in groups.  Glover’s roads are open.  The noise they make lasts less than a minute, and it’s far less than the logging trucks that also frequent the road. 

Some speed, most don’t.  Some cars and pickups speed.  The ATVs are generally sedate in comparison as they trundle by with a couple seated side by side, sometimes with kids or grandkids along.  Yes, there are some hotrodders, probably the same ones who roar by in deliberately loud, souped up pickups.

All that aside, it seems the argument against opening roads to a new form of recreation will be, and should be, lost.  We’ve done this already with snow machines.  We’ve acknowledged the economic contribution they make, and we’ve mourned their diminished numbers. 

The people who enjoy riding around on open air machines have moved on; the rest of us should, too.  — T.S.

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