Feds Keep ATVs Off Snowy Rail Trails

Concord — March 21, 2008 — The federal government has denied New Hampshire’s request to allow ATVs on some snow-covered rail trail corridors, striking down the state’s attempt to classify the off-road vehicles as snowmobiles. The state asked the Federal Highway Administration for a waiver to allow ATVs on about 160 miles of federally funded rail trails in the state.

To do so would have required ATVs to be classified as snowmobiles, because snowmobiles are the only motorized vehicles allowed on the trails. The government rejected the waiver, and said ATVs are not snowmobiles. In a statement released yesterday, the Bureau of Trails announced ATVs would be banned on the affected trails immediately. It said would it would post signs in the next week.

A group called ATV Watch has been fighting the state Department of Resources and Economic Development, even suing the state to release documents about the policy.

“For more than a year, DRED and the staff at the Bureau of Trails have worked to subvert the federal laws prohibiting ATV use on the rail trails by arguing that in New Hampshire an ATV is essentially a snowmobile,” said ATV Watch Director Andrew Walters.

The request also is coming under fire in the Legislature, where two proposals would ban ATVs on the rail trails. One proposal comes up for a vote today in the House. It bans ATVs and trail bikes on state-owned rail trails that were bought with federal money. The committee that reviewed it recommended the ban be approved and criticized the state’s attempt for a waiver to allow ATVs on the rail trails.

“The majority of the committee believes that such a waiver is a policy change that, if desired, should be initiated by the Legislature,” the committee reported to the House. “It is a betrayal to the municipalities in which these trails run and private groups who participated in the acquisition of the trails to alter their use without a public process.” Rail trails not bought with federal money and most other winter ATV trails are not affected.

[Monitor editorial and comprensive article follow]

State’s Role Shouldn’t Be to Promote ATVs [Monitor Editorial Staff]
Pigs can swim. Ducks can swim. Ergo, a pig is a duck. That was the logic used by the state’s Bureau of Trails in its briefly successful ploy to sneak all-terrain vehicles onto 160 miles of the recreational trails purchased with federal money. Those trails are closed to motorized recreation, save for snowmobiles in winter, so the bureau, with no objection from its higher-ups at the Department of Resources and Economic Development, decided to call ATVs “snow-going machines.”

Earlier this month, Monitor columnist Hillary Nelson recounted the sorry history of that campaign, which is part of a relentless effort on the part of the bureau to give the owners of the noisy, environmentally destructive toys more places to play.

Once the feds learned that that the state had subverted the clear meaning of the law, the bureau asked for a waiver to allow the ATVs to continue using 160 miles of trails meant primarily for cross-country skiing, hiking, biking and the like. We bet the feds didn’t even need to look up “snowmobile” in a dictionary before saying “No.” The bureau had to post a notice on its website to tell riders that it is, indeed, illegal to ride ATVs on the rail trails.

Nelson rightly points out that the bureau’s attempted end-run around the law was a result of its dependence on off-highway recreation vehicle registration fees for the bulk of its budget. That reliance would skew the judgment and policies of any agency. Lobbying by the recreational vehicle sales industry – and ATV owners’ demands for more places to ride close to home – adds to the bureau’s incentives to open state parks to ATV use and to override local attempts to ban or regulate ATVs and ATV parks.

The bureau’s heavy dependence on $54 ATV registration fees is a problem lawmakers should address. As long as the bureau has an overwhelming financial incentive to maximize ATV registrations, it will skew its policies toward that end and away from more popular and less destructive forms of outdoor recreation. The registration money goes to a fund held by the state treasurer, and any money left at the end of the fiscal year is automatically carried forward to the next year. That should change. The bureau’s budget should be set by the Legislature.

That won’t solve the problem, however. The bureau has been quick to point out that it is charged, under the law, with promoting the sport. The law calls upon it to “support” motorized off-highway recreation. Lawmakers should take the bureau out of the business of promoting an activity that is completely at odds with the non-motorized, more environmentally benign ways that the vast majority of the state’s residents and visitors enjoy the outdoors. They should amend the law and remove the word “support.”

ATVs are wonderful tools for work and rescue but they and their bigger cousins – four-wheel-drive vehicles used for “muddin” and the like – do tremendous damage to the environment and the ability of others to enjoy the outdoors. The state, in this age of rapid population growth, higher energy costs and rapid climate caused by burning fossil fuels, has no business promoting the expansion of ATV use.

Hillary Nelson Monitor article follows

When is an ATV not an ATV? When the State Decides it’s a Snowmobile

Concord— March 9, 2008 — One day last week, the New Hampshire Bureau of Trails posted a terse message on the internet stating that some 160 miles of rail trails were to be closed to wheeled motorized vehicles like ATVs, effective immediately. Now, only about 1.7 percent of New Hampshire residents registered ATVs or trail bikes last year, not a big enough demographic to make for a front-page headline, so the announcement barely rippled through local media.

But behind those few paragraphs that did make it to the inner pages of local newspapers lies a months-long saga, a perfect example of just what the 2008 Governance Performance Project was talking about when it flunked Granite State government. It’s a story of the way a dubious funding mechanism can hijack public policy, affecting the environmental quality of public and private lands and the ability of towns to control noxious development.

The Bureau of Trails came into existence in the early 1970s, when it was known as the Bureau of Off-Highway Vehicles. At that time the agency focused largely on the needs of the infant snowmobile industry. Over time, the bureau took on responsibility for all publicly accessible trails in New Hampshire (many of which run through private lands), including trails used for non-motorized uses like hiking and snow-shoeing. In 1993, the bureau took on its current name to reflect that change.

Despite the new name, the bureau’s origin as an agency concerned solely with promoting the interests of off-highway recreational vehicle enthusiasts and the recreational vehicle industry is still much in evidence. For example, the agency has a supervisor of OHRVs, Chris Gamache, who has worked hard for many years to expand trail opportunities for ATV and trail bike enthusiasts through legislation and the creation of new trails throughout the state, like the new ATV park in Berlin.

Gamache, however, has no opposite number to balance out his enthusiasm for OHRVs with an equal enthusiasm for quieter, low-impact trail users. The state doesn’t have a “supervisor of non-motorized trails” representing the hikers, cross-country skiers, bicyclists and equestrians of New Hampshire, though there are plenty more of them than OHRV enthusiasts. (The last comprehensive outdoor recreation plan for New Hampshire estimated, for example, that while 73 percent of New Hampshire households went hiking every year, only 17 percent of households rode ATVs).

Why this disparity? You’d think, given the usage statistics (and the fact that in hearings conducted all over the state, the vast majority of those who testified stated that they wanted ATVs and trail bikes banned from public lands) that the bureau would spend most of its time and money on quiet-use trails. But here’s the problem: The majority of bureau’s budget comes from hefty registration fees on OHRVs. In 2007 that amounted to over $3 million.

Simple Economics
What this means is, the more OHRVs that are registered in New Hampshire, the more flush the Bureau of Trails budget is. About 20 percent of the registration fees go back into running the agency. Most of the remainder goes toward trails and the not-for-profit groups who sponsor them and maintain them. It’s simple economics. The more time and effort bureau personnel spend on OHRV trails and promoting laws that permit OHRV trails, the more successful the Bureau of Trails will be. Financially at least.

But is the bureau really more successful as a government agency? Is it fulfilling its mandate and promoting the best interests of all its constituents and the people of New Hampshire? The answer, unfortunately, is no. In the last several years, the Bureau of Trails and the Department of Resources and Economic Development have sought to institute rules that would force communities to accept ATV and dirt bike trails even when those communities, fearing noise, damage to wetlands and other concerns, don’t want them and have ordinances that prohibit them. At least one such effort (Lyndeborough v. Boisvert) wound up going all the way to the Supreme Court at the taxpayers’ expense before the state lost.

The agency has tried to insert ATV trails into state parks despite the vigorous opposition of park users and the surrounding community, notably Bear Brook. Because there’s been so much resistance to building new trails, the bureau has resorted to loosening the way conservation easements and rules are interpreted to open trails to motorized vehicles.

Change of Policy
And this is where we arrive back at that short notice that appeared last week on the Parks and Recreation website closing the rail trails to wheeled vehicles. Now, most of these rail corridors are owned by the state Department of Transportation and were bought with federal money for a rail-to-trail conversion. Clearly the feds had joggers and walkers and cyclists in mind when this money was allocated. The money to buy the trails came with strings attached to that end. In certain circumstances they would allow snowmobiles onto the trails, but otherwise the rules were clear – no recreational wheeled motorized vehicles allowed.

The Department of Transportation turned management of the trails over to DRED and the Bureau of Trails. At first, DRED answered queries about ATVs on the trails by explaining it wasn’t allowed under federal regulations. But somewhere along the line that changed, and the bureau began allowing ATVs onto the rail trails during the winter. When confronted, the bureau asked the feds for an exception, basically to agree to call an ATV a “snow-going machine” (a/k/a a snowmobile).

This caused a stir in the Legislature, which seems to be getting a little fed up with the Bureau of Trails pushing for ATV interests at the expense of other trail users. After all, ATVers already employ the Dupont Group to lobby on their behalf. Two bills were introduced this session that, if passed, would make it perfectly clear, in case anyone was confused, that ATVs are not snowmobiles. The brouhaha even made it to the governor’s office, where he and the Executive Council held a hearing on it last August. DRED Commissioner George Bald testified, doing his best to make the case for ATVs as “snow-going machines.”

The letter from the Federal Highway Administration, which finally arrived last week after months of consideration, is addressed to no fewer than five Transportation officials as well as three from DRED and the Bureau of Trails. That’s right – it took eight state officials, at least one federal official, not to mention the attorney general’s office, one judge and sundry court employees, in addition to the Legislature, the governor, executive councilors and assorted staff, to figure out that an ATV is most definitely not a snowmobile. I’d laugh if it didn’t make me want to cry.

Shanghaied
This is what happens when we rely on dubious sources of funding, like liquor and cigarettes and ATV registrations to fund state agencies – real governance is shanghaied. We can only go on like this so much longer. Infrastructure is crumbling, Fish and Game, one of this state’s most essential agencies, is drowning, education goes unfunded. And we’re standing around arguing about the definition of a snowmobile.

Somehow, warped by monied interests, distracted by trivialities, state government has lost its way. The best interests of the people of New Hampshire are no longer being served by this untenable system. It’s time to ditch The Pledge and accept the necessity of a broad-based tax. Until agencies are adequately funded by no-strings-attached tax dollars, we’ll deserve that failing grade.

Feds Keep ATVs Off Snowy Rail Trails