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Straying from legal trails hurting Michaux

June 13, 2005|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

FAYETTEVILLE, PA. - There are 37 miles of legal trails on which to ride all-terrain vehicles in Michaux State Forest, but owners of four-wheel-drive pickups and SUVs have to stay on the forest's 140 miles of legal roads.

Richard Sullivan, chief ranger at the 87,000-acre forest that spans parts of Franklin, Adams and Cumberland counties, has a bit of advice for drivers: "If it looks like fun, don't go there."

For years, ATV riders gave rangers headaches by straying off the legal trails and onto restricted forest lands.

"They make their own trails," said Troy Gearhart, a ranger at Michaux since 1997. "They drive on old logging areas where we have reclamation projects. It's a very unique ecosystem, and it doesn't take much to destroy it."

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Crackdowns by rangers, more arrests and educating the public have begun to pay off, he said.

The number of ATV violations is dropping, but those by four-wheel-drive vehicles is increasing, he said.

"Contrary to popular belief, there are no off-road, four-wheel vehicle trails anywhere in the forest," Sullivan said.

"They have to stay on the roads, but they don't. They think they can drive anywhere," Sullivan said.

The vehicles tear up the forest floor, destroy young and old trees, cause erosion that sends sedimentation into streams and threatens the water quality in reservoirs in the forest that feed into public water systems in Chambersburg, Pa., Waynesboro, Pa., and Shippensburg, Pa., Gearhart said.

The forest has about 42 miles of legal snowmobile trails, but they are not used that much.

"We usually have one or two snowstorms a year where there's enough snow," Gearhart said.

A recent show in the Pennsylvania Public Broadcasting System's "Our Town" series that featured Chambersburg appears to have contributed to increased illegal use of the forest by drivers of four-wheel drive vehicles, Sullivan said. The "Our Town" programs feature local amateur photographers with video cameras interviewing local residents.

"The show showed interviews with people who said they always drive their four-wheelers off-road in the forest," Sullivan said. "Activity picked up significantly since it aired. People were even stopping by the office asking for directions where to go," he said.

A "secondary" problem is the growing number of housing developments that are encroaching on the forest, Sullivan said.

"They're being built right up against the forest, and the homeowners see it as their own playground," Sullivan said. "We arrested one guy who got his Humvee stuck going off road. It's unbelievable ... some people drive in the forest."

About 33 miles of the Appalachian Trail passes through the forest. Other local trails also are available to hikers, Gearhart said.

Mountain bike and horse riders are the fastest-growing segment of forest users, Sullivan said.

"They can ride anywhere. There are no regulations. That's a problem that will have to be addressed," he said.

"These are public lands," Sullivan said. "We're not out to stop people from recreating, but we can't tolerate anyone destroying or damaging public resources or interfering with anyone else's legal enjoyment.

"Our job description is seeing that that doesn't happen," he said.

Rangers patrol on ATVs.

"We're out seven days a week, but not 24 hours. People seem to know when we're on and off, but we try to keep them guessing," Sullivan said.

Arrests have increased in all categories - illegal off-road use by vehicles, underage drinking, vandalism and camping without a permit, among others, Sullivan said.

In 2003, 170 people were charged with various violations. The number was up to 225 last year. This year, "we're already knocking on the door of 100," Sullivan said.

The forest has five rangers, although the staff is four at the moment.

"That's four rangers to cover 87,000 acres," Gearhart said.

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