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Smaller Motors Not Invited...Yet

Emmet County considers opening seasonal roads to ORVs

October 5, 2005 | By Rob Wooley
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Off-road vehicles are popular in Michigan, which maintains 3,000 miles of ORV trails on state land, including this one in Otsego County.

HARBOR SPRINGS — The Emmet County Board of Commissioners’ decision to consider reversing a ban and opening seasonal back roads to off-road vehicles is stirring controversy in this scenic Up North county at the tip of Michigan’s mitt.

The commissioners took up the idea in early July at the suggestion of a local businessman who rents and sells the vehicles. Although commissioners have not acted on the proposal, they said that allowing so-called ORVs to gain access to the county’s seasonal roads would be easy to do: It merely requires an ordinance legalizing the practice.

The idea, though, faces significant opposition from some environmentalists, the president of the local Audubon Society, some public safety experts, and the Michigan State University professor who recently wrote a new ORV trail management proposal for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the agency that licenses the vehicles and maintains special trails for them. They say opening seasonal routes invites abuses of the land, illegal activities, trespassing, and commotion where none now exists.  

But proponents of allowing ORVs onto seasonal roads say fears are unfounded. They tout the extra tourist dollars such activity, which is growing rapidly in Michigan, might bring to the area.

Still, the proposal to provide ORV riders new routes through this beautiful county's forests and scenic fields has prompted the president of a statewide, pro-ORV organization to urge the county to proceed cautiously.

“Everything comes down to education,” said Richard Rondeau, president of the Dearborn-based Michigan ATV Association, a non-profit group that advocates for off-road and all-terrain vehicles. “Before Emmet County opens a system of seasonal roads, ORV users need to have the information and tools to be successful law-abiding citizens. This includes accurate mapping and signage. If ORV users have those tools, they will be able to recreate responsibly.”

The debate that is stirring in Emmet County resembles dozens of similar discussions occurring throughout the nation as ORV sales soar, and riders seek new destinations, particularly on public lands. Michigan counts 165,000 licensed ORV riders, among the highest number of any state. In addition, Michigan is a primary market for new ORV sales, which this year are expected to reach 875,000 units nationally, up from 550,000 units in 2000, according to A.G. Edwards, a national market research firm. National surveys have found that most ORVs are used by hunters, an important segment of Michigan's recreational economy. 

Questions About Liability, Enforcement
But where Mr. Rondeau sees a path to well-informed harmony and tourist-based prosperity, others see very little that the county could gain, and much it could lose, from opening back roads to ORVs.

“Don’t do it,” said Charles Nelson, a MSU professor whose new ORV trail management proposal is posted on the DNR’s Web site for public comment. “Counties should only improve access to their designated trail systems, and, since Emmet is not connected to any designated ORV trail system, they should not open their seasonal roads. They especially need to think about liability.”

Professor Nelson indicated that he is particularly concerned about a county’s liability for accidents that could happen on seasonal roads, which receive minimal maintenance but invite high-speed riding.

According to the Detroit Free Press, a DNR survey found that 224 ORV riders were killed in Michigan from 1982 to 2002. Most safety experts assert that a significant number of those deaths resulted from riders hitting rough sections of trails at high speed. An analysis by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission in the late 1990s also raised concerns about safety. The CPSC researchers found that the number of injuries and deaths were falling steadily from 1986 when 350 people were killed on ORVs nationwide, to 269 in 1992. The CPSC analysis also found that half of the injuries and a third of the deaths occurred with children 16 years old and younger. Moreover, 75 percent of the injuries and 85 percent of the deaths occurred in boys and men.    

"Emmet County needs to be cognizant of gross negligence,” Mr. Nelson said. “There are deep pockets out there, and by opening their seasonal roads the county is ultimately responsible for maintaining those trails and roadsides, and therefore opening the door to some potentially tough court cases.”

Some county residents also argue that reversing the ban on OVR riding would open seasonal routes to places that are almost impossible for county sheriffs to patrol.

“Basically, citizens are concerned about potential illegal activity,” said Cindy Mom, president of the Petoskey Area Audubon Society. “If we open our seasonal roads to ORVs, we will see illegal activity such as hill climbing on dunes and other steep slopes, riding on Lake Michigan beaches, riding in wetlands, destruction of hiking trails, and shortcuts between destinations. All of these problems regularly occur now in counties that are open to ORV use.

“Right now,” Ms. Mom added, “even though it's illegal in Emmet County to ride an ORV anywhere other than on your own property, we're currently having problems with ORV users trespassing on private land, illegally operating on public land, and riding at high speeds on the seasonal roads. Can you imagine what will happen if we legitimize the use of these vehicles?"

Next Door, a Reality Check
Other Emmet County residents assert that the answer to Ms. Mom’s question is readily available in neighboring Cheboygan County, which has DNR-designated ORV trails in the Black Mountain Forest Recreation Area. 

“I recently spent a weekend in July hiking and camping in the Black Mountain Forest and was astonished at the volume of ORV traffic in the woods,” said Joel Moore, a Harbor Springs resident who is opposed to allowing ORVs on state land. “In addition to the physical evidence of damage you can see in the woods, the noise pollution from ORVS is constant—from 10 a.m. till after midnight.”

The trail system in that forest includes 75 miles of designed ORV trails and routes, and a 65-acre “scramble area” for motorcycles and ATVs.

Professor Nelson added that, despite all of the legal places that ORVs can go in the Black Mountain Forest, Cheboygan County still experiences many enforcement problems. According to the draft plan he prepared for the DNR, illegal riding in the state forest is abundant and generates “social conflict” between users and non-users. In addition, he said, there are lots of illegal scramble areas and spur trails that the DNR must constantly block and restore.

The professor also said his research indicates that safety and enforcement remain a top concern among law enforcement entities in northern Michigan, where many counties are simply unable to patrol ORVs due to lack of funding.

Some law enforcement officials confirm Professor Nelson’s assertion. In August, the DNR reported that many of the motorized vehicle operators its officers cited this summer in Cheboygan County claimed that they were unaware that ORV operation is permitted only on designated trails. Others say that the problem is broader than that. According to a 2004 survey of 60 Michigan county sheriffs, significant ORV problems—in addition to trespassing—include drunk and drugged driving, and failure to use helmets and other required safety equipment.

Many sheriffs say that if additional money were available for patrolling ORV use their departments would purchase new ORV patrol equipment and monitor riders more rigorously. Counties like Emmet, however, which have no DNR-managed trails, are ineligible for state enforcement funds.

“Will we need more officers? Will we need new equipment?” said Emmet County Sheriff Pete Wallin. “Probably. But that will have to come from the county’s general fund, so we’re keeping a close eye on this one.”

A Communications Problem?
Mr. Rondeau responds with his own vigorous assertions on behalf of ORV riders. He says that most riders are law-abiding citizens uninterested in harming the environment or endangering other outdoor enthusiasts.

“It’s not about people wanting to recreate on these seasonal roads,” he said. “They don’t. ORV users want to be able to get to things, go places. They want to be able to get on a trail, drive to a buddy’s house, get a sandwich, or maybe go to a hotel and spend money”.

Mr. Rondeau said that the real challenge is sharply delineating where riders can and cannot go—and communicating that information clearly. He wants county officials to develop a comprehensive plan for educating riders, implement precise signage and mapping, and then discuss opening seasonal roads to ORVs. In essence Mr. Rondeau says that when ORV riders know the rules they will abide by them.    

But ORV opponents argue that all of the seasonal back roads cannot easily be mapped or signed.

"Because these seasonal roads do not form a nice, contiguous trail system, people will end up creating their own connections beyond the seasonal roads,” Ms. Mom predicted.  “What we will end up with is a mess of trails that aren't where we want them to be, and that will cause damage to the integrity of our plant and animal communities. Plus, it will create a dangerous situation for non-motorized recreationists."

ORV supporters say the best solution is to reevaluate and improve the management of the seasonal road system.

“There are a lot of reasons people claim to not allow ORV use: It’s dangerous, it’s harmful, and that it’s something that’s not desired,” Mr. Rondeau said. “The truth is it is highly desired. The problem is we don’t know how to manage it at the governmental level.”

Although Mr. Rondeau maintains that the state and counties could do more to manage ORV use, it is unclear where money for better education and enforcement could come from.

Worth It?
"Think about it” said Mr. Rondeau. “Imagine the economic impact if we create a system where people could get on their ORVs, ride on a designated trail, stop at the gas station to fill up their gas tank, then swing by the corner store to pick up a gallon of milk, and then drive back home?”

But others worry that patrolling the activity would cost the county tens of thousands of dollars for personnel, signage, communication, and liability—money it simply does not have in these difficult economic times.

“Emmet County needs to stop and think about cost, they need to think about the ORV damage, and the citations that will result,” Professor Nelson said. “Based on many DNR field reports, unrestricted ORV access to county roads contributes to illegal use of public lands and contributes to trespass on private land. Is it worth it?”

Meanwhile, county officials say they are not at all sure of their next step.

“Right now we’re just looking into the legality of this,” said Emmet County Commissioner Tom Shier, who chairs the county’s transportation committee. “We’re still trying to figure this out. We may not be able to do anything and all this may be for naught.”

Rob Wooley is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Smart Growth policy specialist for Emmet County. Reach him at rob@mlui.org.

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