Canton board members voice criticism of county request to open roads to ATVs
By ADAM ATKINSON
CANTON — The county request to open town roads to local ATV traffic while the state Department of Environmental Conservation works to establish a primary multi-use trail is drawing some criticism from town board members.
The board discussed the issue with County Legislator Kevin Acres at their meeting Wednesday, April 10, during Acres county government report to the town.Six towns, including Canton, are being asked to open their roads to allow ATV thru-traffic from Lewis County trails into St. Lawrence County and on to Franklin County.
“It is meant to be a temporary measure,” said Acres during his report about the request to open the roads.
“These alternative routes that the towns would have to approve with local laws would be short distances but its meant to combine the trails of Franklin County and Lewis County,” Acres said. “We are not looking forward to or promoting something like a Snirt (Run) in Lowville where 4500 ATVs show up. That is not our intent.”
“Whether you agree with the trail or not, and I’m kind of mixed, I think if you are enjoying the environment, hiking, biking, horses, or something non motorized would be more appealing, but obviously there are people that can’t walk the trails whether they have a disability an amputated leg or whatever, so it gives them an opportunity to get out,” said Acres.
The legislator said that the legislature had spent years and millions of dollars working on the proposed primary multi-use trail, which is still waiting for the DEC to open up public land use.
Town Councilman Bob Washo voiced some concern of the potential of a town road becoming less a temporary trail and more the trail itself. Acres pointed out that the vehicle and traffic law does allow sections of public roads to be used as connectors between designated trail sections. He said however, that that stipulation of the law could be used by opponents of the trail system to challenge the road usage.
Acres said he views the towns’ passage of local laws opening up their roads as “motivation” for the DEC to move ahead formalizing the multi-use trail system and capitalize on the county’s investment and hopefully drive the economics of the county’s tourism and hospitality industry.
“Is the intention then for the DEC then to open up some of these smaller state forests in St. Lawrence County to provide access there, or private land, what is the ultimate goal to get these roads back flowing and get the four-wheelers back on the trails?” asked Washo.
Acres, who qualified that he is not a recreational ATV rider, said opening roads to ATV traffic would be a temporary alternative until the state agency could connect all the sections of the proposed primary trail.
Councilman Phil LaMarche said that one of the issues he has had with “the way the process has unfolded” is that the town is being asked to approve a map of potential roads to open to ATV traffic that the town board has seen but the public, some of whom may live on those roads, has not been able to view.
LaMarche said that if the trail system is for economic development, even though there many not be 4,500 ATV riders all at once, that there would be greater ATV traffic on the opened roads due to promotion of the area.
“And as an elected official I would not feel comfortable voting on anything that has not been publicly aired and that people who live on those roads would know that we are opening up their roads to thousands of ATVers and . . . we are not just going to open this. The county is going to market this across other the other counties, statewide I would imagine,” said LaMarche.
“I think it goes back to the process. . . We are being asked to approve a trail that hasn’t even been made public yet. And being asked to approve it, and make large impacts on our taxpayers without them even being knowledgable of it. Which I find very problematic.” LaMarche said.
Acres said the maps of the proposed trails and roads are available. “I think those are fair questions, but the maps do exist,” Acres said.
“The maps were shared with us, but we were told we couldn’t share them with anybody,” Washo said. “They were given to us in confidence and so we see the big picture but we can’t talk about it.”
Acres said that he would inquire with the county trail organizers about the direction the board members had received and agreed that the maps should be public knowledge.
Town supervisor Mary Ann Ashley voiced similar concerns to the members of the board. “My concern is full transparency of the process,” she said.
Town councilman Jimmy Smith asked how long the roads would have to be opened as an alternate ATV route. Acres said that temporary could mean 2 to 3 years before the DEC secured the necessary easements for the entire primary trail.
Snowmobiling and ATV recreation is a heavily promoted tourism venture in Lewis County, but not without a great deal of controversy over the years at the county and town government levels. The Lewis County trail system exists under the auspices of numerous negotiations and agreements with private landowners, with stretches of public road being used as connection points between trail sections on private and public land for both ATV and snowmobile riders.
Verbal and political clashes between private landowners and the local bar and hotel owners who run the ATV and snowmobile recreation clubs that maintain the extensive Lewis County trail system are well documented in that county.
Accidents, some with fatalities, along with private land damage from visiting recreational riders and redistribution of public funds allocated for economic development to trail maintenance has often sparked debate among those for and against in Lewis County. Often the arguments in support offer up proclaimed economic benefits. Those against the trails refute those benefits, claiming they are negated by crop damage, extra road maintenance and the EMS and law enforcement required to police riders, adding that any monetary benefits left after that end up being shared among a small segment of the population.
(In full disclosure, this reporter worked as a journalist and editor at newspapers in Lowville and Carthage, extensively covering the snowmobile and ATV issue there from 2001-2011).