– by Dennis Hodgin
Most ECFLA/WDLT members have known first hand about the “ATV Problem” on private and public land for years but now it is official. Of course it only took 5 years for our public officials to acknowledge it! A recent report aptly titled “Preserved But Not Protected” by the Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality, a state watchdog agency of Connecticut public environmental issues that is independent from the DEP, has correctly identified that preserved (DEP, land trust, etc.) lands are under attack and they specifically callout that the DEP Environmental Conservation Officers (formerly known as DEP Enforcement) need enhanced enforcement capabilities to deal with the ongoing damage from illegal ATVs. This something that we have known for years and it is equally bad if not worse on privately owned land. It is painfully clear that a lack of vigorous enforcement of existing laws by the DEP is the major reason that both private and public land are still being terrorized by growing numbers of illegal ATV riders. This group has been characterized as “18 to 40 something year-old adolescents” and they have demonstrated they no regard for property rights. Many have stated that they regard the rare $70 fine when caught as just part of the cost of their illegal riding. This situation has benn made worse by the past practice of the DEP Enforcement Officers routinely issuing warnings rather than citations for flagrant first offenses.
You cannot legislate common sense but you can legislate responsibility when dealing with the ATV problem. We have seen the incredibly aggressive nature of illegal ATV riders who consider it a challenge to be caught. I believe each offense should be treated the same as any other motor vehicle moving violation by assessing points against their drivers license for each violation as well as a fine similar to that of a motor vehicle moving violation. DEP Enforcement should increase both its capability and presence on public and private land in order to have an impact on the ATV Problem. I have heard an as yet un-substantiated story that the DEP has recently adopted an unwritten policy that it will not respond to complaints on private land. If this is correct then the DEP needs to correct this policy immediately.
We as private citizens should also do our part and there are 2 obvious things we can do:
- 1) Continue to call the 24 hours a day / 7 days a week DEP hotline (860-424-3333) to report illegal ATV activity. This is very important. I have had several of our members say that the DEP dispatcher is sometimes reluctant to log in the complaint if the caller cannot guarantee that the ATVs will be there if / when a DEP officer is dispatched. Do not be talked out of recording this event, as it is an important statistic needed to monitor the ATV problem.
- 2) Please consider contacting your State Representative and Senator to tell them that additional funding and resources for the DEP are needed in order to enforce existing laws covering ATV use on private and public land. I believe that DEP enforcement of the current laws is our only chance to help private landowners. Sure, they have not done a stellar job recently but they are our best hope and accordingly we need to support them. More realistic fines and penalties are also needed.
It is contrary to common decency for our public officials not to protect public, private and protected land from the ATV lawbreakers. However it is more likely that the ATV lawbreakers will be rewarded with access to our public land. This single-issue special interest group, with its professional lobbyist, money and special access to a highly placed State representative want access to our State Forest land. This of course means that a large number of private landowners adjacent to our fractured and widely dispersed State forests will we under increased attack from illegal ATVs. The ATV lobby reportedly will soon be busing their paid staff and a bunch of cute little kids to the State Capital so they can do photo ops with our State representatives.
This is still America and you need to make your opinions made or the bad guys will win. It is not fair but it is the new American way. They are well financed and organized. We, on the other hand have only our State representatives as our advocates with this issue. Sure we are the victims and we are solid law abiding and tax paying citizens, but have no statewide organization to represent us. In the current environment there are no assurances that we will be treated fairly. So would you like to wager which side will be rewarded with favorable legislation?