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Take a hard line vs. ATVs in the wilderness

ATV tracks are seen on the edges of this mountain bike trail in Wilmington. (Photo provided)

It is ironic that all-terrain vehicles are not welcome on many terrains.

Although some towns in the area have passed local laws that allow ATVs on certain local roads, they are usually banned from public roads, for good reason. ATVs don’t mix well with regular vehicular traffic, and they aren’t meant for that sort of travel.

They shouldn’t be in the state Forest Preserve — not for recreational use — because they’re loud and they tear up trails and they’re too fast and large to be sharing trails with people on foot. The state has a policy against ATV use on state forest land, but that policy hasn’t been enshrined in law with mandated penalties. It should be.

Nothing is inherently wrong with ATVs. They have a place in recreational use on private property, including large tracts owned by timber companies that allow hunting and have internal logging roads. They’re useful for search & rescue operations and occasionally for DEC officials needing to get in and out of the backcountry regularly. They’re ideal for facilitating access to the state forests for people with disabilities.

But they’re all wrong for everyday use in the public forests, where people go for hiking and paddling and fishing and hunting and soaking in the natural sounds and smells. The woods can’t be an escape from the tension of the modern technological world if loud machines are barreling past, leaving tracks — or ruts when it’s wet — on the trail.

I’ve argued for bicycle access to the Adirondack backcountry, and I do think some wilderness preservationists hurt their cause by taking inflexible stances against anything that smacks of modern life. By advocating for wilderness recreation, you’re conceding a certain amount of disruption and damage to the woods.

But everything is degree, and it makes sense to draw a line at loud, intrusive machines that damage forest trails. Snowmobiles are loud, too, but at least they travel on top of the snow, so damage is minimized, and since they’re whizzing around in winter, far fewer people are out in the woods to feel their peaceful experience is being ruined.

The Adirondack Council and other Adirondack environmentalists deserve credit for celebrating the growth in recent years of the popularity of hiking, paddling and other sorts of backcountry tourism. As human disruption of the environment becomes the defining quality of modern existence, affecting every aspect of our lives, more and more people are seeking as natural an experience as they can find.

Some recreational tourism — like ATV use of wilderness trails — destroys the very experience being celebrated. We shouldn’t let dirt bikes in the backcountry, either, or dune buggies, or monster trucks.

The Adirondack Park is so large and incorporates so much private property, where people go about their lives in the usual ways, that it’s easy to overlook what a natural wonder it is. Wilderness areas that large and beautiful and unspoiled are rare.

If you take the nearly 3 million acres owned by the state, the park would rank as the second-largest wilderness area in the U.S., outside of Alaska — behind only Death Valley Wilderness in California and Nevada. Much of the private property is also undeveloped.

Of course, the public should be able to enjoy public property. Inevitably, that will change its wild character. But the beauty of nature deserves as much reverence as we give to our own beautiful creations. An ATV in a cathedral is just wrong, and it’s wrong in the wilderness, too.