Since arriving on the market in 1970, the popularity of all-terrain vehicles soared. Originally designed as recreation vehicles for outdoor enthusiasts, ATVs later became the vehicle of choice for many farmers.
These days, ATVs are once again attracting thrill-seekers looking for an adventurous way to experience the outdoors.
Pro Cycle, an ATV dealership in Columbia, has seen a significant increase in sales of ATVs over the past few years. Paul Troth, the store’s general manager, said people today buy ATVs for many different reasons.
“Some people buy them as toys, some buy them to implement into their farming, some use them for hunting,” he said.
The explosion in ATV use has increased the demand for areas where people can legally ride them. This search for ATV-friendly places has created a rift between ATV lovers and environmentalists.
At the center of the debate is Mark Twain National Forest. Mark Twain is home to two of the state’s most-used ATV trail areas: Chadwick and Sutton Bluffs. These areas were created for ATV use in 2000. Despite the designated areas, people have still been riding on land where ATVs aren’t allowed, creating a network of illegal trails in the forest.
Charlotte Wiggins, a spokeswoman with Mark Twain National Forest, said the forest is considering “connecting the dots,” — meaning some of the trails would become authorized.
These areas would probably not be legalized for another four to five years.
And the decision to open up more trails will likely depend on the results of a proposed three-year study on the impact of legal and illegal ATV riding in the forest.
The study would look at how ATV use is affecting the trails and surrounding habitat. It would involve closing off access points to streams and endangered areas and collecting data on soil erosion in the areas where riding is happening.
Caroline Pufalt with the Ozark Sierra Club said the areas where ATVs are allowed are permanently altered. She said the Sierra Club has found that in some areas at Chadwick, the soil has eroded to the bedrock.
This damage, she said, could not be naturally repaired within the next hundred years, even if all ATV use in the area ceased immediately.
“National forests should provide for recreation needs that are compatible with the resource,” she said.
Pufalt is against allowing ATVs in Missouri national forests for two main reasons: soil erosion and noise.
“In today’s crowded world with population pressure and development, national forests are the best places for natural habitats,” she said. “There is too great an impact on the ground, too great a disruption in the area, to make adding trails worth it.”
Wiggins agrees that ATVs can damage the forest’s habitat, but she said she hopes that by designating and monitoring specific riding areas, the impact can be isolated.
Still, the designated trails have not solved the problem of illegal riding.
“We don’t know for sure, but we can surmise people are riding where they are not supposed to,” Wiggins said. “And we just don’t have enough law enforcement to effectively monitor it.”
Wiggins said opening existing illegal trails is justified because it will encourage riders to stay in designated areas, which will reduce the impact on the forest.
She said when Chadwick and Sutton Bluffs first opened, illegal riding in the forest declined.
“People riding where they want to ride, and then rewarding them with new trails, is not the way to handle the situation,” she said.
She said once these new trails become saturated with riders, people will once again start leaving the trail areas.
“ATV riders do it for the thrill of riding on dangerous or thrilling trails,” Pufalt said. “The trail is like a roller coaster, part of the thrill of the ride is the challenge of the terrain. After they conquer one trail, they want a new challenge.”
Most riders, Pufalt said, want to ride legally. But, she said, just a handful of vehicles riding illegally can have a huge impact on the forest. Pufalt added that she has seen self-regulation in the designated areas with riders picking up trash and maintaining the areas. These successes are not worth the trade off, she said.
“The gains at these areas are few and have been a struggle,” she said. “The best thing for the resource is to not have motorized traffic in the area at all.”
Nash Stream Forest in northern New Hampshire had a similar problem with illegal riders. Before the forest opened its trails, there was no public land for ATV riders.
“We felt a big push to provide a place to ride,” said Robert MacGregor, regional forester for New Hampshire’s Division of Forest and Land.
MacGregor said the forest hoped to reach a compromise between environmentalists and riders by opening several designated trails.
But he said Nash Stream has about the same amount of illegal riding now as it did before the trails were created.
The trails even induced illegal riding in new areas because people started on the trail and would leave it in spots where riders hadn’t been before, he said. The opening of the trails also brought more visitors to that area of the forest.
The trails were designed to make it difficult for riders to damage the surrounding habitat.
“They probably put in twice as many bridges as needed, just to ensure that people stayed out of the streams,” MacGregor said.
The local community favored the opening of the trails, but new trails being proposed in the southern part of New Hampshire are meeting more resistance.
MacGregor attributed the opposition to the southern part of the state being more urbanized, so residents are more concerned with noise and intrusion on the forests.
Pufalt said that since ATVs are allowed in Missouri forests, the best way to minimize their impact is to increase law enforcement in the area.
When people are caught riding outside of a designated area, they are issued a ticket. Wiggins said the amount depends on exactly what they are charged with and what a court would order them to pay. She could not estimate or give a range of the amount of the fines.
But Pufalt maintains that ATVs have no business in the forest in the first place.
“Missouri has such a small amount of public land and ATV use on it is improper,” Pufalt said. “If ATVs are so good and benign, why haven’t we seen more private landowners open their land up for ATV use? It’s because no private landowner wants that on their land.”
In addition to Chadwick and Sutton Bluff, designated public ATV areas can also be found at Finger Lakes State Park near Columbia and at St. Joe State Park in southeast Missouri.