Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
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Not the Place for ATVs

On a balmy Friday afternoon in mid-January, my mare Allie and I rode into the state forest, entering near Greenlands, well north of the airport. As we trotted south on one fire lane, I heard revvings and rumblings ahead. We turned southwestward on the next trail, and before we'd gone 50 yards the ATVs tore by behind us. By the noise I think it was two, possibly three. No harm done, but I was glad it was Allie and me, not a less experienced trail-rider on a more nervous horse. I couldn't help remembering an incident a few years back: a panicked horse ran into Old County Road, where he was hit by a car and killed. His very experienced rider had done an "emergency dismount" at full speed; she landed in the hospital.

I'm sure that most ATV riders ride responsibly -- albeit, in most places on this island, illegally. But most of the dirt bikers I see on the trails and byroads seem too young to have driver's licenses, or to have had them for long. Age and experience don't necessarily a responsible driver make -- a drive from one end of State Road to the other will disabuse anyone of that notion -- but they do help. How many of these ATV riders realize the havoc that their passing can cause?

As a long-time walker and, more recently, rider of the Island's open-to-the-public lands, I don't want to deprive anyone of the experience, but at the same time it's clear that some uses are not compatible with all the others. For one of these, shotgun deer hunting, an accommodation has been worked out: for one week in late fall, the shotgun hunters get access to the state forest and certain Land Bank properties, and most of the rest of us stay close to home. I'd suggest a similar solution for the ATVs, but would most of the dirt bikers be willing to stay out of the woods 51 weeks of the year? I doubt it.

In last week's Martha's Vineyard Times, one parent of an ATV rider was quoted as writing: "These kids have chosen their sport to be ATV riding and deserve a place to ride." If they had chosen cockfighting for their sport, would we be called upon to make them a space, perhaps down by the local MSPCA? If they choose downhill skiing, must we build them a mountain? Not all sports are equally suited to all times and places. ATV riding is not well suited to Martha's Vineyard in 2006.

With all the talk these days about juvenile couch potatoes and computer junkies, why can't these young people find a more physical, less noisy, less resource-intensive and intrusive way to blow off steam and see the off-road Island? Perhaps if they were on foot, or a mountain bike, or even a horse, they might actually see and hear and smell the woods, and understand what some of us object to being deprived of.


P.S. A few points from the first draft hit the cutting-room floor, partly because the letter was getting too long already (big surprise!). One is that the ATV riders are overwhelmingly male. Perhaps exclusively: it's hard to determine the gender of these pint-size Darth Vaders in drag. I've noticed over the years that many individuals with XY chromosomes like to make loud noises, bodily, vehicularly, musically, or with guns. I've also noticed that loud noises are generally incompatible with reflection, serenity, and rational thought. It's probably too big a leap from ATVs marauding in the state forest to "why the fook is the U.S. making big boom-boom in Iraq?" but I think the connection is worth exploring.

Another is that I have a hard time with the people who argue ad nauseam that ATVs wreck the pristine trails and endanger endangered species. These people often own expensive houses, don't have to work for a living, and/or arrived on the island in the last 10 years. They do not consider working islanders an endangered species. I do, and I think we're a lot more important than ladyslippers and piping plovers, even if some of our XY children are training to be cannon fodder.

Finally, I really didn't suggest that ATV riders get to ride unrestricted in the state forest during Deer Week. Not out loud. Or at least not in writing.

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