States Warm to ATV's to Drive Tourism
Text .By SIMMI AUJLA
In May, Michigan's Roscommon County made it legal to drive all-terrain vehicles on the shoulders of county roads. A few weeks later, Patrick Driscoll bought a new $9,900 ATV to ride around Roscommon's back country -- exactly the kind of response county commissioners had in mind.
.Local officials across the country are trying to develop ATV tourism in an effort to boost their economies. The vehicles, long regarded by conservationists as loud, dangerous and destructive to the natural landscape, now seem like a promising new source of revenue.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 9.5 million four-wheel ATVs were in use nationwide in 2007. That's nearly double the 4.8 million it estimated in 2001.
Some public officials see ATV tourism's economic potential as akin to that of snowmobiling, which has, by some estimates, generated billions in annual vehicle sales and tourism revenue. A study of one of the biggest ATV trail networks, West Virginia's Hatfield-McCoy system, found that consumers spent $7.7 million for lodging, permits, meals, machine repairs and fuel while visiting in 2005. A spokesman for the trail network estimated that figure is now about $10 million a year.
Mr. Driscoll, a robotics engineer who lives in a suburb of Detroit, said he had been considering buying his first ATV for a while. The county's new law sealed the deal. If he had driven the ATV onto county roads before May, he would have faced a $135 fine.
"We put over 60 miles on it in the first weekend," he said. "I can just throw my helmet on and drive down the road to the trails."
Now local officials in states including Michigan, Maine, Vermont and New York are extending trail networks, building new systems for ATVs and other off-road vehicles, and making routes more accessible.
Towns that can connect ATV trails to main thoroughfares and local businesses will be able to reap economic benefits, said Brian Hawthorne, the public-lands policy director for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an Idaho-based advocacy group for off-road vehicle users.
In the past year, 36 counties in northern Michigan began to allow people to drive off-road vehicles on the sides of all county roads. That makes it easier for ATV riders to access trails, grocery stores, restaurants and gas stations.
The new laws appear to have encouraged ATV usage. From March through June, the state issued 112,954 permits for off-road vehicles, up from 99,819 over the same period last year.
Local officials in other states are also trying to lure riders of ATVs, off-road dirt bikes and dune buggies. In upstate New York, Lewis County recently cleared several forested trails, started selling permits to pay for off-road trail expansions and hosted a fund-raising event to add to the kitty.
Fans say that ATVs -- usually one- or two-seat vehicles that can hit 65 miles per hour -- provide fun and access to remote parts of the country. Critics say that their loud motors shatter tranquility, and that their wheels tear up the ground and plants.
In Vermont, ATVs are banned from public land, but the state's Agency of Natural Resources proposed a rule in May that could lift the ban. It would create a process for vetting an ATV club's proposal for trails on state property that would connect with those on private land. Rogue ATV riders have long created their own paths, damaging land in the process.
Residents opposed to the proposal have sent hundreds of letters and emails to the agency. George Longenecker, a professor who lives in Marshfield, Vt., protested in a letter to his local newspaper. Mr. Longenecker said ATVs damage land and are excessively noisy and more destructive than the snowmobiles that pass by his property in the winter. The costs of enforcing the rule would outweigh any gains, he said, adding, "We don't have money in Vermont right now for that."
Back in Michigan, some businesses are already seeing a return from the new ATV policy. Kurtis Norton, the owner of two hardware stores in Roscommon County, said sales at one of his stores were up more than $2,000 in June -- a 4.5% increase over last year -- as more travelers visit from southern Michigan.
"We're trying to do whatever we can to help our businesses," said Robin Seymour of the Roscommon County Board of Commissioners' Office.
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(Wall Street Journal Article Pulled From WildlandsCPR Website)