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ATVs on area town roads: Fun or asking for trouble?

This sign is one of many now posted as more area towns open their roads to ATV use. Photo by Judy Wiff

More and more "ATV Route" signs are popping up around St. Croix and Pierce counties as town boards adopt ordinances to allow the off-road vehicles on town roads.

But some rural residents argue that letting all-terrain vehicles mix with cars and trucks is dangerous and annoying and that the rules are nearly impossible to enforce. At least one town has said no to the change.

The Pierce County towns of Ellsworth, Gilman, Martell, Trimbelle and Spring Lake have adopted ordinances to allow ATVs on some of their roads. In St. Croix County, the towns of Cady, Emerald and Glenwood have approved ATV ordinances.

The issue has been on the Eau Galle Town Board agenda for four months. It's on the board's agenda for Monday, Oct. 13, and town residents who have argued against ATVs on their roads hope others will join their opposition and speak up.

In Pierce County, the River Falls Town Board decided over a year ago not to adopt an ordinance allowing ATVs on its roads.

A St. Croix County ATV group has also approached the Baldwin and Springfield town boards but hasn't gotten approval there at this point.

While municipalities can approve the use of off-road vehicles on all or some of their roads, ATVs can't be driven on the roads until "ATV Route" signs are posted. It's up to local ATV organizations to buy and erect the signs, and that's being done as they can afford it.

Roger Bauer, president of the St. Croix County Trail Riders ATV Club, said his group hasn't gotten signs for Glenwood and Emerald yet so ATVs can't travel roads in those towns yet.

River Falls Town Chairwoman Diana Smith said the Pierce County ATV club approached her board about adopting an ATV ordinance over a year ago.

"They only wanted a really small part of our roads," said Smith. That was a section near Beldenville.

She said the town has no businesses, such as restaurants, that ATVers might want to access. So the issue seemed minor in her town, and the club didn't actively pursue an ordinance change.

"There's no benefit for the town at all," said Smith, explaining another reason town supervisors didn't support allowing ATVs on roads. She said the town would get no funding to enforce the ordinance or maintain the roads' ATVs use.

Mark Tomlinson, an Eau Galle resident who has lived on a town road for 12 years, has been vocal in his opposition to ATVs on roads in his town.

The enforcement plan is essentially voluntary and would be handled primarily by ATV club "ambassadors," said Tomlinson.

"Since it's a club, it has no authority whatsoever," he said, explaining that if a town resident sees a violation, he would have to identify the offender and call the ATV club to send out an ambassador to talk to the ATVer.

Also, said Tomlinson, the town ordinance doesn't address noise levels, and any resident living on a particular town road could ask to have it made an ATV route.

"If my neighbor requested this, and I objected, there was no provision for that (in the draft ordinance)," said Tomlinson.

"We're meeting some opposition from people out there," said Bauer, admitting ATV use hasn't been welcomed in all towns. The Eau Galle debate, in particular, has been lengthy.

While the Trail Riders club is in its second year and has 30-35 members, not all have been involved in lobbying town boards for on-road use, said Bauer.

"They're hard to rouse out to give support," he said of club membership.

St. Croix ATV clubs include the Trail Riders, Glenwood City Barnstormers, Roberts Knight Riders Snowmobile/ATV Club and the Wilson Wheelers.

"It's frustrating that the ATVers don't come out and support this more," said Bauer, noting that larger shows of support might sway town boards.

He said the intent of obtaining use of select town roads is "to be able to weave a membrane of trails and roads to have riding access."

Opening public roads to ATVs will give access to private trails, he said, adding that private landowners often offer use of their land, but having access to that half mile or so of trail is of little use if ATVers can't get to it.

It's easier for snowmobilers to get from trail to trail because they can use public road ditches, said Bill Krueger, who handles public relations for the Trail Riders club.

"Back in the way-back days, snowmobilers were grandfathered to use the ditches," said Krueger. But ATVers must stick to marked trails.

Bauer and Krueger said their goal is to develop routes so ATVers can ride from Pierce County through St. Croix County into Polk County and other northern counties.

His ultimate goal, said Bauer, is to be able to load up his ATV with clothes, head north through Polk County and stay overnight.

"It's kind of an adventure," said Bauer of the plan to reach the more northern counties. "There you have some opportunities (to ride) real forest trails."

He added, "(ATVs) are intended to be ridden on dirt and mud, rather than on the road."

Is it dangerous to mix cars, trucks and ATVs?

"Not really," said Bauer.

He referred to statistics compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. According to the 2007 summary on the DNR Web site, of the 24 ATV fatalities reported, nine occurred on roads.

"The majority of (the fatalities) are happening on real trails when things get out of hand," said Bauer.

He pointed out that while children with no formal training can ride bicycles on roads, youngsters must take a DNR certified class before they can legally operate an ATV on any trail. State law also requires that ATVers younger than 18 must wear helmets.

The club sees ATV use as a family activity, wholesome recreation for young people, said Bauer. He has two ATVs and said his 15-year-old daughter enjoys riding with him.

Krueger also has two machines. Both he and his wife drive, and their sons, ages 6 and 4, ride.

Bauer said he helped organize the club to increase user options.

"I recognized that we needed some voice to make things happen," he said.