So you’ve got a shiny new all-terrain vehicle and you’re dying to hit the trails to enjoy Maine’s tough terrain and invigorating weather.
While you’re out there rumbling over rocks and hills, you better know whose land you’re on or you may end up with a fine.
If you decide to cross that sparkling little stream, you’ll get another fine.
If you see a Maine warden waving you over, the last thing you should do is take off. If caught, you could face another fine and lose your ATV as well as your fishing or hunting licenses.
After years of complaints about ATV operators causing ruts and other damage to privately owned land, the state has responded by enacting tough new ATV laws that took effect Sept. 1.
The new measures give teeth to a requirement that riders ask permission before using a trail, especially if the trail passes through cropland, pasture or an orchard.
State officials say the new legislation gives property owners a better tool to prevent destruction of their property and encourages riders to join clubs, expand the number of ATV-designated trails and boost tourism.
ATV riders are saying that for the most part the laws do not affect them.
The measures obligate ATV operators to get permission from every landowner on every trail they ride, said Paul Jacques, deputy commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“It was always against the law to operate a motor vehicle on the land of another without permission, but what we did was break it down to areas,” Jacques said. “For croplands, pastures and working orchards, you need written permission, and oral permission is required for all others unless they are ATV-marked trails.”
But that’s not the way everybody reads the new legislation.
Some riders and businesses associated with the four-wheeler industry say the laws will not affect riders unless they come across land that is marked with signs that prohibit access.
“It’s assumed you have permission unless it’s posted that you cannot,” said Kurt Thomas of Bangor Motor Sports. “If [property owners] don’t want ATVs, they’ll mark it.”
Jim Lane, an official with ATV Maine, a statewide organization and advocate for ATV riders and clubs, disagrees.
“Unless a trail is maintained and marked by a local club, it is not a designated ATV trail,” Lane said. “Just because somebody doesn’t have a poster on their land, it does not give you the right to be on their land. We do not have the right to intrude on somebody’s private property without asking permission.”
Jim Hale, 21, of Corinna, who has been riding ATVs since he was a child, said he will abide by the laws, but he knows other riders who will not.
“Nothing is going to stop them,” he said.
The number of registered ATV users in Maine has more than doubled in the past decade, and the number of injuries and deaths has tripled. In 1993, there were 22,390 registered ATVs, 89 reported injuries and two deaths. In 2003, there were 56,784 ATVs registered, 337 injuries and six deaths.
In the same period, the number of landowner complaints about trespassing and irresponsible riders also increased. That spurred Gov. John Baldacci last year to create an ATV task force to come up with the new measures to better regulate the growing sport.
“A four-wheeler can cause significant damage,” said Ian Fraser, who sells ATVs at Friend and Friend, a dealership in Orono. “It’s a couple of people who ruin it for everybody.”
Nearly all of the governor’s ATV task force recommendations that didn’t have price tags attached were enacted as laws, and there are a lot of them. To get the word out about the new regulations, the state is presenting notifications to people when they register their ATVs.
The new laws
The laws mirror decades-old snowmobile legislation and encourage riders to join clubs, which take trail-riding responsibilities seriously, said David Barter, spokesman for ATV Maine.
“Snowmobilers ran into the same problem 30 years ago, and now there are literally thousands of miles of groomed trails,” he said. “We’re getting calls daily, and there have been a lot of rumors. It’s not so much questions; it’s misconceptions.”
Other provisions of the new laws are designed to protect lakes, streams, bogs, vernal pools and any water source used for human consumption from riders unless the ground is frozen. They also give landowners the right to close a trail temporarily during mud season.
“If you’re caught on land without permission and you damage that property, the courts can charge you up to three times the amount of damages, plus fine you,” Lane said.
The new laws also prohibit snorkel devices, require mufflers on ATVs and order that registration plates be displayed on the front and rear of the vehicle.
Major portions of the measures are aimed at regulating ATV use by children and increasing education. For years, children of all ages have been able to ride ATVs with little problem, but years of accidents and deaths have changed that.
Unsafe speeds and operator inexperience are the leading causes of accidents in the state. Of the 310 accidents in 2003, 74 were with drivers aged 11 to 15, and 15 occurred with drivers age 10 or under. Only about half wore helmets, which is a requirement for those younger than 18.
In 2002, 91 of the 322 ATV accidents were with drivers 15 and under.
“Anyone under 10 years of age cannot operate an ATV” off family land, Jacques said. “If they’re under 16, they need to take a training course with a parent or guardian to ride off their land or they have to have a parent or guardian” with them.
In addition, parents, grandparents and guardians can be fined for allowing children to stray from their property unsupervised. Children 10 and under are not allowed to cross roads, and children 11 to 15 who have not taken a training course also are prohibited.
A woman recently was given a citation for allowing her grandchildren to use an ATV off her land, and “she was wild,” Barter said.
“She read the judge the riot act, but he made it stick, so it has been enforced,” he said.
The new laws carry fines of $100 to $500 per violation, and there are severe penalties for riders who show flagrant disregard for the new measures. There can be consequences well beyond those affecting ATV use.
Fines of more than $1,000 and mandatory suspension of DIF&W licenses are possible for certain violations, including operating without landowner permission.
“The [DIF&W] commissioner wanted to make sure people paid attention,” Jacques said.
Scott Ramsay, director of the Off-road Vehicles Division of the state Conservation Department’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, stressed that the $1,000 fine is the minimum “and we’ll impound their vehicle and they’ll lose their licenses through the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.”
“It’s a very powerful penalty,” Ramsay said.
People caught operating an ATV on a closed trail or without landowner permission, abusing another person’s property, operating to endanger, operating recklessly or while under the influence of intoxicants, or trying to elude or failing to stop for law enforcement automatically lose their hunting, fishing, guide, taxidermy or other DIF&W licenses.
The only way to get those licenses back is to take a DIF&W ethics or safety course.
There has never been an incentive for law enforcement agencies to assist the Maine Warden Service, with its limited number of personnel, with enforcement of ATV laws, Jacques said. For this reason, part of the legislation creates a fund that allows other policing agencies to be paid for their efforts.
There is approximately $80,000 set aside for enforcement reimbursements this year.
“This allows towns, groups of towns or cities to coordinate with county or state police to up enforcement … and get reimbursed,” he said. “With 30 game wardens [statewide], if the other law enforcement agencies choose not to get involved, we’d be in a hell of a situation.”
Property owners who have problems with ATV riders using their property without permission should call their local law enforcement officer.
“We’re not chasing ATVs all over the place,” Jacques said. “But if we get a complaint or if we see eight or 10 of them together, we’ll investigate.”
Finding a place to ride
One issue already has surfaced with the new measures. It centers around the fact that property lines are not always visibly marked, making it difficult for riders to know whose land they are on, Jacques said.
“One of the problems [riders are] bringing up is finding the owner,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the ATV user to find that property owner.”
Barter, who is president of a Bath ATV club, said he deals with “at least 500 landowners” for a short trail system in his area and is having this problem now.
“At this point, we cannot tell who owns a little half-acre lot” along our trail, he said. “It’s a full-time job for every club to handle this permission.
“It’s a fight to keep the permission that we’ve got,” he said. “And that’s a problem, because if one landowner gets upset, they can close off the land.”
Brian Bronson, recreational vehicle coordinator for the Bureau of Parks and Lands, said his agency has received plenty of phone calls since the measures took effect.
“Club memberships have just about doubled this year just because of the knowledge of the new law,” he said. “That’s good. It’s what we’re after.”
The more ATV clubs there are, the more ATV-designated trails there will be, Bronson said. This year the number of registered ATVs has exceeded 60,000 and club numbers have grown to more than 110.
Maine is leading the nation with the laws, and several New England states and Canadian provinces have requested copies of the regulations, Bronson said.
The number of riders significantly exceeds the number of ATV-designated trails in Maine, Jacques said.
“Obviously with 60,000 [registered] riders and only 3,000 miles of trails, a lot of work has to be done to establish trails,” he said. “Some people have called and said, ‘I paid $8,000 for this vehicle and I can’t go anywhere.’ I say, if ATVers want to continue to use them, they are mandated to design ATV trails.”
Several state-owned or leased abandoned rail beds are open to ATV use, and many of the public reserve land gravel roads are open to ATV use – if they are marked with a shared use sign.
All snowmobile trails are off limits to ATVs unless the vehicles have been modified with track conversion kits, which cost in excess of $3,500. These converted ATVs also need to be registered twice – once as an ATV and again in the winter as a snowmobile.
There are big benefits in joining a club, said Charles “Chip” Grover, president of the Airline ATV Riders of Eddington.
“By joining, members get a map to the 738 miles of trails, called the Down East Trail, that the club helps to maintain along with several other clubs, and they are covered by the club’s liability insurance,” he said. “Our trail runs from Aurora to Helen’s [restaurant] in downtown Machias.”
Considering most of Maine is woods, there should be plenty of room for ATV users, Thomas said.
“I don’t know how much acreage there is in the state, but surely there are enough acres to accommodate ATVs,” he said.
ATV riders should take a cue from the snowmobile industry and increase tourism, Jacques said.
“The future of ATVing could be an economic boon,” he said. “Snowmobiling is a $230 million industry.”
And the future for Maine’s ATV industry is bright, Lane said.”ATVs in the state of Maine alone are increasing in sales by 34 percent a year,” Lane said. “That’s over the snowmobile sales by 20 percent.
He said he would not be surprised to see ATVs become a $300 million to $500 million industry in Maine.
“The state of Maine is now realizing that ATVs are going to play a major role with the economy,” he said.