ATV use on state land rejected by legislative panel

MONTPELIER — A legislative panel has rejected a rule that would have allowed the limited use of all-terrain vehicles on some state lands.

The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules voted 5 to 3 Thursday to oppose a rule submitted by the Agency of Natural Resources to establish a connector trail on state-owned land in the town of Stockbridge. A majority of the committee agreed that the proposed rule is contrary to legislative intent, that ANR lacks the statutory authority to implement it and did not offer a complete economic impact study.

Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter

Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources wrote a letter to LCAR questioning ANR’s authority to propose the rule under existing statute. Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, said relevant legislative committees should clarify statute before LCAR acts.

“The committees of jurisdiction, which have been reluctant in the last several years, … have agreed to take this up and clarify the situation,” he said.

But Department of Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter, who appeared on behalf of ANR Secretary Deborah Markowitz, said there is no guarantee that will happen.

“I’ve gotten indications from members of the Legislature that they will take it up and address it through statute, but they’re busy and they’ve got a lot of things going on,” he said.

The proposed rule would have allowed limited ATV use on what is known as the Les Newell Connector trail. Any additional trail designations sought by ANR to help connect ATV trail networks would also have to go through the same LCAR approval process in the future.

Porter said the administration of former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas previously sought a similar rule but was also rejected. Porter said the Douglas administration sought approval of its rule under the same language in statute.

“The statute says, essentially, you can’t have ATVs on state land unless designated by the secretary of (The Agency of Natural Resources),” Porter told the Vermont Press Bureau.

Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, agreed with Porter’s assessment.

“I think it is clear on its face that the agency has the authority to act as it has, even if we haven’t explicitly said in law,” she said. “The secretary can designate an area for all terrain vehicles.”

But a majority of LCAR members disagreed.

Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, said that the language is not clear.

“I do still believe that legislative intent is not clear and needs to be clarified and should be clarified,” she said. “This is a very different rule than we’ve seen before but they both rely on the same citation for authority.”

Snelling said the issue would be addressed by the relevant legislative committees.DSnelling

“They have all assured me directly that they are interested in clarifying legislative intent,” she said. “I sincerely believe that is the best way to go.”

Porter, in an interview following Thursday’s hearing, said allowing the Vermont All Terrain Vehicle Sportsman’s Association to use limited connector trails on state-owned land similar to the way the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers uses trails for snowmobiles is good policy for the state.

“We think that it makes sense to allow these connector trails in these limited circumstances. The circumstances under which those can be done and the conditions under which they can be done are pretty limited and pretty specific,” he said. “The policy makes sense to us because in other cases with other users, including VAST, we’ve put in place land-use agreements like this on the condition they maintain the trails and also that they work with us to prevent illegal driving. By having some engagement, something that they can use on state land, provides a pretty good incentive to prevent damage and prevent illegal driving.”

Environmental groups, including the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club, have been strongly opposed to any use of ATVs on state-owned land. Robb Kidd, Sierra Clubs conservation program manager in Vermont, hailed LCAR’s decision Thursday.

“We’re pleased that LCAR rejected the rule. We questioned whether the administration had the authority to adopt the rules. Whether they do or not, we think a policy that is that dramatic of a shift should go through the legislative process, not the rule making process,” Kidd said. “The administration will claim that there was very little opposition in the process but the more people find out about the issue the more they’re concerned about the spread of ATVs on state lands. We feel it should be openly debated, not in a couple of small, public hearings.”

Porter said ANR will review the objection and determine how to move forward.

“We’ll have to go back and look at the formal objection from the committee and evaluate it from there,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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