Ohio dairy farmer Frank Sutliff was grinding cattle feed when he saw them again: all-terrain vehicles shredding his alfalfa fields. When he shouted over...
Ohio dairy farmer Frank Sutliff was grinding cattle feed when he saw them again: all-terrain vehicles shredding his alfalfa fields.
When he shouted over the engine whine that the riders were trespassing, they smashed him over the head, he said.
“I went down, and they just started in on me … hit me, kicked me, broke my leg,” said Sutliff, 46. “I crawled into the truck, drove back to the house and dialed 911.”
One man paid a $100 trespassing fine. Another spent five days in jail. All denied wrongdoing.
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Across rural America, angry skirmishes are increasingly common between property owners and off-roaders squaring off over dwindling open space.
Long accustomed to battling environmentalists for access to public lands, off-roaders now find themselves at odds with farmers, ranchers and a flood of new residents moving to the country for peace and quiet.
As Bob Buster, a county supervisor in Riverside, Calif., put it: “You have these two clashing visions of the countryside.”
Nationally, millions of acres have been developed in recent decades. At the same time, use of off-highway vehicles — a catch-all term for four-wheelers, dirt bikes and dune buggies — has exploded, up 700 percent to 36 million users since 1976.
Off-road motorized sports are now a $4.8 billion industry. According to buyer surveys by manufacturers, 68 percent of owners of all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, ride on private land.
That infuriates landowners such as Harlan Brown, who installed heat- and motion-sensitive cameras to catch off-road miscreants who created a muddy quagmire in his 100-acre Maine woods.
“Your land is not your land,” said his wife, Judy. “You think it is, but it’s not. It’s terrible.”
The clashes have made victims of riders as well as property owners. In North Carolina three years ago, Joshua Woodruff, 22, died of internal injuries after he hit a steel cable while zooming down a private farm lane on his ATV.
Farmer Ted Arnold said in an interview that he had strung up the cable after making many complaints to police about trash, crop destruction and soil erosion from off-roaders. Arnold said he had liberally posted no-trespassing signs and warned riders. No criminal charges were filed against him.
State and local officials in Maine, Vermont, Ohio, Minnesota, Wyoming and Michigan in recent years have enacted or are weighing new measures to combat illegal off-roading.
Clashes between riders and residents have been frequent in subdivisions carved out of open space, on private property near national forests, and in rural areas — including northern New England and the California desert — where snowmobilers, kids on dirt bikes and others were once free to barrel across unfenced, unposted land.
“Back in the ’60s, when I was growing up, it was like the whole desert was wide open,” said Brian Klock, spokesman for the California State Parks’ off-highway vehicle program. “I literally would ride anywhere. … There were no signs, no maps. The only thing I knew was when you got near a residence, sometimes the landowner didn’t like it and he would be out there with a shotgun.”
Phoenix, suburban Atlanta, towns across Connecticut and the outskirts of Colorado cities all have seen urban sprawl bump up against popular cross-country routes, said Russ Ehnes, executive director of the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council in Sheboygan, Wis. “The problem is the town spreads out and the trail stays put,” he said.
Landowners don’t have much sympathy for those they see as destructive trespassers.
“My 23 acres near Twentynine Palms [Calif.] are being massacred by off-road vehicles,” said M.J. “Mac” Dube, former mayor of Twentynine Palms and an aide to San Bernardino County supervisor Bill Postmus. “At 1:15 in the morning they were spinning around two feet from my bedroom, and I’m sick and tired of it.”
Riders can and often do leave police in the dust. With two officers per shift to patrol 5,200 square miles, and more serious crimes taking priority, Capt. Jim Williams of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department admitted it can take as long as four hours to respond to a trespassing complaint. By then, offenders usually are long gone.
Lobbyists and manufacturers say off-roaders are a law-abiding bunch tainted by the actions of a misguided minority.
“A very, very small percentage of people can do a lot of harm. … But it’s a small percentage,” said Mike Mount of the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America in Irvine, Calif.
Promoters say educating riders and providing legal riding areas are the best solutions.
Public parks and private tracks do exist, including one in West Virginia where officials have turned tensions into a profit-making venture.
In five years, the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority has carved 500 miles of trail through 250,000 acres of private land in eight counties.
More than 400 property owners signed on, including coal-mining and timber giants who had grown tired of steep insurance bills and trespassing near blast areas and logging sites.
Admission fees now pay the insurance bills. A police force patrols for rowdy behavior or trespassing off trails.
The area has turned into a major tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of riders and pumping millions into the area’s economy, said Hatfield-McCoy executive director Matt Ballard.