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Massachusetts Completes New Off Highway Vehicle Policy

Depending on the outcome of this assessment, the agency may take action to eliminate or reduce OHV use on specific state-owned properties.

From MA Department of Conservation and Recreation - March 2007

Map of Massachusetts

The trails in our parks are used by a diversity of recreational users. One such use is by off highway vehicles (OHVs), such as ATVs and off-road motorcycles. OHV use on public lands has been growing nationally, by as much as 300% in many areas, over the last decade.

In Massachusetts, an estimated 90,000 households participate in OHV recreation on public lands. Historically, eight DCR forests have been open to OHV use. Unfortunately, with a growing population of enthusiasts; few legal riding areas; and inadequate past attention to the siting, construction and maintenance of designated trails; this activity has produced environmental degradation in many areas and touched off conflicts with other trail users. As a result, DCR is working to tackle this issue by developing a new policy for OHV trail use, siting, maintenance, and management.

The Policy Development Process

Recognizing the scale of the challenge and the range of interests, DCR adopted a regional, multi-stakeholder approach to the issue in 2005. We assembled an OHV working group composed of trails users, scientists, land managers, and others to expand the discussion and inform the agency's decisions. The most important task of this working group was to develop a set of objective criteria that could be used to assess the appropriateness of OHV use on any given DCR property.

The group's deliberations produced draft criteria that were presented in public meetings across the state in 2006. Public comments from these sessions were incorporated into the final policy. The new OHV policy establishes a two-tiered process for assessing and designing OHV trails, what we call a "coarse" and "fine" filter process. In the first stage, a GIS analysis is used to assess the extent of important natural resources on a property, including wetlands, drinking water supply resources, rare plant and animal habitats, priority natural communities, forest reserves, and steep slopes.

This analysis will be used to determine if OHV use is at all compatible with the property. The second stage or fine filter seeks to address the specific siting, management, and maintenance of OHV trails. The policy also includes provisions to encourage safe and enjoyable motorized recreation areas, including mileage goals, coordination with local communities, and cooperation with local clubs and supporting organizations.

Last fall, the draft policy was submitted to the Stewardship Council (DCR's advisory board) for their review. In February, the Council approved the policy. The full policy is available on DCR's website at www.mass.gov/dcr/recreate/orv.

DCR has now begun the process of applying the coarse filter criteria to the properties where OHV use is currently allowed: Beartown, F. Gilbert Hills, Franklin, Freetown-Fall River, Georgetown-Rowley, October Mountain, Pittsfield, Tolland and Wrentham State Forests. Depending on the outcome of this assessment, the agency may take action in the next few weeks to eliminate or reduce OHV use in specific properties prior to the riding season that begins May 1, 2007. The agency will hold public meetings in communities where designated OHV use changes.

Enforcement an Ongoing Concern

The Stewardship Council added an important condition to their approval of the new policy. Recognizing that illegal OHV use is widespread on public and private lands across the Commonwealth, the advisory body challenged the agency to produce a plan for addressing enforcement concerns by early August, 2007. Any plan to improve OHV enforcement must address penalties for misuse of these vehicles and the capacity of law enforcement agencies to catch law-breakers. Any process to strengthen OHV laws and regulations and bolster law enforcement capacity should involve the Legislature, multiple law enforcement agencies, environmental interests, land management entities, and motorized recreation enthusiasts. The agency is therefore initiating a process that encourages participation by these and other diverse interests and will proceed quickly to produce a plan for the council's review in early summer.

The Elements of Sustainable OHV Management

Growing demand for motorized trail recreation and a steadily decreasing supply of open space available for the sport will ensure that OHV recreation will continue to be one of the most polarizing challenges in trail recreation for the next decade. DCR believes that effective and sustainable management will requires three essential elements:

1. Legally designated riding areas designed, constructed, maintained, and managed specifically to accommodate this use,

2. Strengthened state laws, OHV regulations, and expanded enforcement capacity to deter illegal riding, and

3. Consistent information regarding safe and environmentally responsible motorized trail recreation coordinated among land managers, law enforcement agencies, dealers and manufacturers, and local clubs and riders.

This complex topic will continue to spark energetic debate. DCR will continue to encourage broad coalitions of stakeholders to work together in pursuit of all these essential elements. DCR is hopeful that the network of individuals, organizations, and decision-makers who have been engaged in this process so far and/ or who care about trails in Massachusetts will contribute to the consistent communication that is critical for effective and sustainable management.

To submit suggestions or questions, please contact DCR at mass.parks@state.ma.us or the agency's comment line at 617-626-4973.

DCR's Off-Highway Vehicle Policy has been adopted by DCR's Stewardship Council and is available at www.mass.gov/dcr/recreate/orv.htm

photo of ATVs on trail

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