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TED MANZER

In the wrong hands ATVs can be environmental menaces

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By Ted Manzer
Columnist

Friday, August 10, 2018

I still remember seeing my first 3-wheeler all-terrain vehicle. It was in 1973. The 4-wheeled variety didn’t come on the scene until 1982.

Back in the 1970s, if a person was willing to walk a couple miles through the Maine woods, trout fishing was incredible. I could catch one on nearly every cast. I never saw any candy wrappers or beer cans either. Those were the days.

Once more people became enamored with ATVs, that soon began to change. Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with these machines, only the way they are often used.

When I was a teenager, my biggest complaint was that these vehicles gave lazy slobs access to the wilderness. I was concerned about my trout fishing and my hunting. I didn’t completely understand the long-reaching effects of soil erosion then.

Tearing up vegetation puts more mud in streams. This cuts down on light penetration. That causes aquatic plants to die, and anything that dies decomposes. That process requires oxygen and the result is lowered dissolved oxygen level in the water.

Fish can travel to places with more oxygen. That saves them temporarily. However, many aquatic organisms can’t move or at least not very fast. Many will die and decompose, sucking up more dissolved oxygen and speeding the overall process.

In addition, when the dead material decomposes, fertilizer nutrients are released, and more plants grow on the water’s surface. Light transmission depth becomes further limited. Eventually, the composition of the waterway is changed, possibly forever.

Harming the environment can be accomplished quickly. Fixing it takes a long time.

Drive ATVs in the headwaters of streams and that destruction process accelerates. Many fish, like brook trout and smallmouth bass, require waters with gravel bottoms to spawn. When gravel changes to mud, reproduction stops. Destroying habitat is even worse than poaching.

Aquatic invertebrates are the primary foods of most fish, and they suffer too. Furthermore, channels can be filled with eroded soil. This limits navigation of small boats, canoes and kayaks.

These off-road vehicles can be useful too. If driven responsibly they can have far less impact to the land than heavier machines like 4-wheel drive trucks. Some folks haul firewood or hay with them, use them to build or fix fences, check on livestock and many other tasks. They cause little or no damage on dry firm ground when driven responsibly.

Sometimes streams must be crossed. If this is necessary it should be done at as close to a 90-degree angle as possible and in a slow steady manner, minimizing tire spinning. Tearing up the ground just for the sake of having fun doesn’t make sense to me. I’m sorry.

Having fun is an important part of life. I don’t discount that, but doing it responsibly is important, especially as there are more of us around to enjoy nature.

Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon, but my vehicle of choice for most routine farm chores is a tractor. Tractors won’t travel 60 mph, but I derive enjoyment and satisfaction when using one.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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