ATV rule splits solons
By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau | January 10,2010
BARRE TOWN – Three of the five Democratic candidates for governor tried Saturday to woo what has recently become a political focus in Vermont: ATV riders.
Sens. Susan Bartlett, Doug Racine and Peter Shumlin, all Democrats hoping to be elected Vermont's next governor in November, met with more than 100 members of the Vermont All Terrain Vehicle Sportsman's Association at the group's annual meeting at the Canadian Club in Barre Town.
The meeting comes while the Vermont Legislature is in a battle with Gov. James Douglas' administration over a new state rule that would allow limited ATV use of state-owned lands. It's a rule that is strongly supported by ATV owners and riders and strongly opposed by environmental groups.
That had some of the Democratic candidates trying to straddle the line between populist recreation and environmental conservation.
"In every sport, there are people who are idiots," said Bartlett, who represents Lamoille County. "The biggest problem for any of these sports is, how do you manage these idiots? Because it's this 1 percent, these idiots, who are making you look bad."
Bartlett and Racine both said they are open to the idea of some state land being used to connect private ATV trails. Striving to find some common ground, the two senators said there are bad apples in the ATV crowd who ruin the reputation of the whole sport. They were also critical of the route taken by the Douglas administration to enact the new rule, which kicks in, on a trial basis, later this month.
"I believe that Vermont lands should be open to all Vermonters," said Racine, who represents Chittenden County. "If we can begin the discussion from that point of view, I think we can figure out this situation."
But Shumlin, the Senate president pro tem from Windham County, staked out a strong – and unpopular, with this crowd – position.
"I don't support the new rule," Shumlin said. "I have an ATV. I understand the joy of the sport. But it doesn't take many people not following the rules to turn the public off."
Shumlin said allowing ATVs to use public lands is a divisive issue. Vermont should look to what other states such as New Hampshire have done, he said. And ATV riders will need to prove they can be good caretakers of these lands by continuing to do what they have done: Build up responsible local ATV groups, sign up members, and ensure that all riders know that riding is a privilege, not a right.
"Let's find a solution that doesn't divide us," Shumlin said. "I know this isn't what you would like to hear, but at least you will never wonder where exactly I stand."
Shumlin's position was not greeted kindly. Danny Hale, the ATV association's executive director, said it was "extremely disappointing." A woman named Anna told Shumlin that she was "very disappointed" in him. But Ernie Pappas, a member of the Tri-County ATV Club, noted that "just because someone owns an ATV, it doesn't mean they have to agree with us."
"Let's not pick on him," Pappas said. "At least he is honest."
All three Democrats said they disagreed with how the Douglas administration is bringing this rule change. Bartlett said legal counsel for the Legislature has said the state does not have the right to push through the change without legislation. She said ATV riders are caught in the middle in a power struggle between lawmakers and the governor.
"You are innocent bystanders in this squabble," she said.
Racine said Vermont's system of managing snowmobile usage on public land works well. He said ATV riders should be given the opportunity to show the rest of the state that they can responsibly use the land.
"We've seen how this can work," he said. "It ought to work the same way for you and your sport."
Jonathan Wood, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the man who has pushed the rule change allowing limited ATV use on public lands, denied that he is overstepping his authority. Attorneys working for the state have told him he is within his rights to increase access, he said.
He got a standing ovation from the crowd when he stood to speak.
"I appreciate that, but I'm just doing my job," he said.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates Deb Markowitz, Vermont's secretary of state, and Matt Dunne, a former state senator, did not attend Saturday's meeting, nor did Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, a Republican who is also running for governor.