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Environment and Outdoors

'Side-By-Side' ATVs Are Accelerating In Popularity — And Raising Some Concerns

A.J. Higgins
Maine Public
Joe Richards, sales manager at Friend & Friend in Ellsworth

They're big, they're wide — and they’re definitely not your grandfather’s all terrain vehicles. 

The new generation of ATVs can carry up to four passengers, and some even have air conditioning. And while dealers say these so-called “side-by-sides” continue to grow in popularity, there are also growing concerns about the impact these wide vehicles are having on Maine’s trail system and the people who use it.

The Kawasaki Teryx4 side-by-side all terrain vehicle has plenty of power, and it can carry its operator and three passengers up steep hills and cruise along trails at speeds of 45- to 50-miles per hour.

On this trip, the ATV’s owner Derek Martin allows me behind the wheel as he guides us along along the 12-foot wide Downeast Sunrise Rail Trail that stretches 87 miles from Ellsworth to Calais. At one point, just off the trail, we reach a grassy hill that descends sharply, and it is unsettling to be heading down without actually seeing what’s below. 

Credit A.J. Higgins / Maine Public
Maine Public
Derek Martin, a Hancock trail rider

Martin assures me there's nothing to worry about. He says recent trail upgrades have created a comfortable ride leading directly into the city of Ellsworth, but there are points where encounters with bikers, hikers, riders on horseback or other ATV drivers require caution.

"So you've kind of got to sight a long ways out, and kind of see if there's somebody on there and let them pass,” says Martin. “But, yeah, there's definitely some raised sections of the trail where passing somebody, even slowly, could become a very dangerous situation.”

With its cushioned shocks and nimble suspension system, the 62-inch wide vehicle comfortably negotiates the hilly terrain. But trails in Maine are often more narrow than that. In fact, ATVs operating on trails located on private property cannot exceed 60 inches in width.

While the publicly-owned Downeast Sunrise Trail has no such restriction Derek Martin’s father Hazen Martin says the wider ATVs can run into trouble as they move to the shoulder of the trail when approaching oncomers.

"What happens is people get into loose gravel at the edges of the trail, and it's just like being on ice, and they'll lose control of their vehicle," Hazen Martin says. "Keep your tires out of the loose gravel, make your top speed 30 or 35 — you can do 60, you can do 70, but you will pay a price eventually."

Trail maintenance groups, meanwhile, say they are hearing some negative reports about the larger ATVs.

"We will occasionally hear from someone who will write us and complain that ‘zoom went by,’ and ‘dust everywhere,’ and ‘noise,’ and ‘what are you going to do about it,’" says Stephen Rees, president of the Downeast Sunrise Trail Coalition.

Rees says complaints reported on the trail are evaluated by the coalition and, when necessary, the Maine Wardens Service will intervene.

Credit A.J. Higgins / Maine Public
Maine Public
Stephen Rees, president of the Sunrise Trail Coalition

"We just don't jump to the conclusion that that particular user was somehow violating law or regulation,” Rees says. “You have to give the benefit of the doubt and then have it proven otherwise."

On the upside, some members of the business community in Ellsworth welcome the ATV traffic brought in by the expansion of the Downeast Sunrise Trail into the downtown area.

Among them is Cooper Friend, the owner of Friend & Friend Powersports, which is also seeing a surge in sales of side-by-side ATVs.

"As far as the community, I think it's been a huge impact,” he says “For our business, it's been a terrific impact.”

Friend says many of the side-by-sides manufactured today remain within the 60-inch width range, allowing them to operate legally on privately-owned trails. Still, as vehicles become wider and wider, and with the state registering some 70,000 ATVs every year, some suggest that new size restrictions may be in order.

State Rep. Danny Martin, a former Fish and Wildlife Commissioner, says that he plans to meet with ATV clubs later this summer to discuss possible legislation.

Originally published July 25, 2018 4:26 p.m.