Lewis County ATV system facing muddy trail

A report in Friday’s Times on problems with last year’s SNIRT Run has lifted the veil on an event that has grown, over time, to a size that local officials have very little ability to keep under control.

The SNIRT Run opens Lewis County’s all-terrain-vehicle trail system to a full day’s worth of fun — much of which appears to center around the consumption of adult beverages, ripping up farm fields and driving through streams shortly after the beginning of trout season — by ATVers willing to pay a registration fee. And many, based on prior reporting, who don’t.

Last year, Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Leviker said there may have been as many as 7,000 machines taking part in the event, even though the event organizers only sold 4,690 registrations.

Last year, a bare handful of tickets were issued during the event. Or, depending on another account, almost 70 were issued.

In a Times story reporting on the event at the end of the day, Mr. Leviker said a “handful” of tickets were issued.

In a subsequent Times story, Lewis County Undersheriff James Monnat said deputies issued 51 traffic tickets during the event, a “majority of which were for operating on closed roads.” The state Department of Environmental Conservation said its forest rangers issued 15 tickets for offenses such as illegal operation on public lands, unauthorized motor vehicle use on state land, unregistered ATV, failure to wear a helmet and uninsured operation of an ATV. No report on state police activity during SNIRT was provided.

This may be the underlying reason why problems with the county’s ATV program don’t get to the county Legislature — the Sheriff’s Department seems content to give vague and unspecific information in its public utterances on just how the system is operating.

A couple of years ago, I submitted a FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) request to that department for every complaint answered for ATV-related incidents and for all ATV-related tickets issued. I then cross-referenced those results. Out of just under 150 complaints filed, fewer than 10 resulted in tickets or arrests.

It’s pretty clear based on Legislator Jerry King’s remarks this week — “It’s getting pretty obvious that if we don’t do something, we may not have a trail system” — that while the county’s law enforcement may not have any problems with how the system is being used, a lot of property owners are getting fed up with the shenanigans.

The county has long argued that a few rotten apples are creating problems for the majority of ATV riders. One good way to shut that down is to start enforcing the laws that are on the books and paying a little more attention to the people who go to the trouble of filing complaints.

Mr. King and County Attorney Joan McNichol both suggested that perhaps some changes in local law would keep the miscreants at bay. I find this ludicrously ironic since the entire county trail system is built on a foundation of violating state law. Having roads that connect only to other roads as part of the system is a violation of state Vehicle and Traffic Law, and the county is pretty much zero for lifetime in defending against suits that have challenged that.

I even heard talk, in this calendar year, that the Legislature was considering a local law that would permit UTVs — the much larger and more powerful utility vehicles — on the trail system, in clear contravention of state law. Having unregistered and possibly uninsured UTVs that are heavier and larger than some compact cars allowed on county and town roads would surely catch the state’s attention.

I understand the fear of losing the economic value of ATV use in the county, and I don’t think the loss of the trail system should be a solution. But I don’t see the county focusing on developing a trail system that would not violate the law, by finding more, and more ample, areas of municipal and private land that could allow most of the public highway portions of the system to be shut down, as they should be.

And until law enforcement gets serious about enforcing the existing laws, I don’t see any prospect for the growing number of detractors of the system being appeased.

Mr. King is right about one thing. Many of the past decisions about the ATV trails system and its operating regulations have served to place it in jeopardy today. Unless something changes, the Legislature may find it will become a lot more trouble than it ever anticipated.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times.