ATVs on rail trail — an issue but not a problem

In the debate over the best use of the Adirondack rail corridor, one frequent objection to removing the rails is that all-terrain vehicles will then be able to “run wild” on the corridor. Observations of ATV use on other long-abandoned rail corridors make this a legitimate concern, but those routes were never thought of as recreational trails for which there would be only certain designated uses.

From the beginning, Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates has made it clear that non-snow uses will be strictly non-motorized. ARTA has also emphasized that the corridor is owned by the state and that ATVs are prohibited on state land in the Adirondacks.

That said, ARTA’s plan for the trail does not ignore this issue and recommends that a relatively few, strategically placed gates will be adequate to prevent illegal access. Remember that there are numerous narrow causeways and rock cuts where a gate can easily and effectively stop illegal users from going very far. The accompanying photo shows a gate on the abandoned D&H railroad grade at the north end of the Bloomingdale Bog. Note that there is no evidence that any vehicle has managed to get around this gate (and a few well-placed boulders), and there is no evidence of vehicular tracks inside the gate.

Those who have raised an objection to removing the tracks, for fear of encouraging ATV trespass on the corridor, have often ascribed to ATVers superhuman powers when it comes to destroying gates, but I would further note there is no evidence of even such an attempt on this Bloomingdale Bog gate. When there is sufficient snow, however, that gate is opened to permit snowmobile traffic.

There are also examples of other rail trails that would argue against the need for even one gate. For instance, I have ridden the 77-mile Greenbrier River Trail in West Virginia, in many ways comparable to our proposed rail trail, and saw no evidence of ATV use. Yet all they did there was to post small wooden signs announcing that motorized vehicles are prohibited. This was despite the fact that the trail passed by houses that had ATVs parked in the yard. When I asked, our shuttle driver did say that occasionally a few ATVs “got loose” on the trail at night, but that illegal use was not a problem because the local residents recognized that the rail trail was helping the community.

The popular Lehigh Gorge rail trail in Pennsylvania also showed no evidence of ATV use – again with just signs and no gates. In both cases, frequent use by walkers, bikers and joggers had essentially driven out any illegal motorized use. The same principle will apply here. On the 90-mile Adirondack Rail Trail connecting Lake Placid and Old Forge, there will be more than enough legitimate users on the corridor to effectively police the trail against ATV trespassers.

Closer to home, my own experience with the construction of the Jackrabbit Ski Trail that runs from Keene to Paul Smiths confirms that non-motorized users will prevent illegal motorized use once the non-motorized use is established. In our first few years of operation, there were problems with snowmobile trespass between Lake Placid and Craig Wood Golf Course, plus dirt bike use closer to town on Fawn Ridge. At one time, there were four gates protecting sections of the Jackrabbit Trail from motorized use. Over time, however, as gate posts rotted or the trail was relocated, we did not replace three of these gates, but motorized use has not become an issue. The one remaining gate is probably no longer needed, either.

Undoubtedly, there will initially be a few problems with illegal use of the Adirondack Rail Trail. However, regulations specific to the trail and clear signage will allow for effective enforcement, and if the experience with other rail trails is any guide, the problem will over time diminish practically to the vanishing point.

A resident of Keene, Tony Goodwin is executive director of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council and co-founder of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.