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ATVs: Rules of the Off-road

by Paul E. Moore
Monday, September 16, 2019 | 02:39pm

 With the arrival of the all-terrain vehicle (ATV), the portrait of outdoor recreation has been forever changed. Some say for the good while others think it has creased a tremendous scar. No matter which side of the fence one chooses to reside, ATVs are here to stay and they increase in popularity every year.

ATVs have both aided and undermined hunters and other outdoors folks. They have brought a tremendous amount of good by providing access to remote terrain, facilitated the hauling of gear, treestands, and removal of downed game, as well as provided opportunity for older or handicapped persons to enjoy hunting, fishing, and other activities.

However, all is not good.

ATVs have cut trails and destroyed pristine landscapes. They have added an element of noise and disturbance to the wilderness and have been the ruin of other hunters' success and tranquility.

Tragically, they have also led to numerous life-altering injuries and deaths. Most all of the bad though may be traced to two common denominators – either not following rules and safety precautions or lack of ATV etiquette and respect for others.

Many of the wildlife management areas, (WMA) owned or managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), strictly forbid the use of all ATVs and off-highway vehicles (OHV). However, many others allow their use by hunters and anglers while actively engaged in sporting activities. Some areas have specific regulations related to the use of ATVs.

Generally, the rules for ATV use are pretty basic. Only roads marked for other vehicle use may be used by ATV riders, except where prohibited by other regulations.

Riders should stay on designated roads and trails and not venture off road into fields, woods, or otherwise prohibited areas. Safe riding is required and all minors are required to wear a helmet.

Spinning tires, doing doughnuts, driving above 25 mph, and other infractions are considered reckless driving and citations are issued. Additionally, all OHV vehicles must have mufflers installed that keep the noise output acceptable.

Not all states are as lax as Tennessee regarding ATV use. Some states require helmets for all riders as well as specific clothing requirements such as gloves, knee pads, long-sleeved shirts, and adequate riding boots.

It is possible at some point that more regulations will be implemented within the state as well. For now, riders are governed by only basic operational and safety laws.

Hunters though should also keep in mind specific regulations while afield on ATVs. All firearms being transported must be unloaded.

Riders must also be properly licensed for the specific hunting season and carrying only firearms or archery equipment legal for use during the present season.

During big game seasons, riders must also meet hunter orange apparel requirements.

Some WMAs do impose additional regulations applicable to that specific property or to a particular season. For instance, regulations at the Chuck Swan State Forest in Campbell and Union counties, specifically mention reckless driving and go on to define the term reckless by their interpretation.

Furthermore, the regulations state that ATVs may not be operated on the main forest road and are restricted only to other roads marked "open to vehicular traffic." The noise output must not exceed 86 decibels when measured at 50 feet from the exhaust.

 Other properties have similar regulations. The annual Tennessee Hunting & Trapping Guide is a good source for regulations pertaining to the individual properties.

The special regulations are listed for each property in the section of the guide listing the wildlife management areas. It is also always a good idea to check with the area manager before entering a property to see if anything has changed or if there are certain areas closed to ATV use.

Aside from those regulations, proper ATV riding boils down to good manners and good common sense. Stan Stooksbury, manager of the North Cumberland WMA, is an avid ATV rider and a good source of information on proper riding.

"There are several things riders should have with them when on the trails,” Stooksbury said. “Always take spare clothes in a waterproof bag or wear some type of jumpsuit to stay dry. A tow rope always comes in handy and can serve double duty as a haul rope to pull out downed game. It's good to have a winch, and make sure everything placed on the ATV is strapped down securely."

Stooksbury said riders often get into trouble by attempting things too dangerous or difficult for their level of experience. There are trails within the WMA he manages which he won't attempt himself, even as an experienced rider. "If you see a spot that you question whether or not it's too difficult for you, the rule is to stop and turn around,” he said."

Rusty Dunn is a wildlife manager at the North Cumberland WMA. ATV etiquette to him simply means ethical riding. Dunn said, "Stay on the trails. Don't go riding on trails marked for foot traffic only or take off riding through the woods. If you shoot a deer, don't go riding through the woods to retrieve it. Be respectful of other hunters and keep travel and noise to a minimum, especially during peak hunting hours. "

Respect for non-hunters is also important to Dunn. "If you shoot a deer and are transporting it by ATV, cover it up with something,” he said. “Not all people are hunters and some could be put off by seeing a bloody deer."

Dunn also added, "It's unethical to road hunt, which is shooting from a motorized vehicle. On TWRA properties, it is also illegal."

Stooksbury and Dunn work at the only WMA in the state that allows recreational ATV riding outside of use for hunting.  The North Cumberland WMA is divided into three units. A special use permit is required for ATV riders unless they are properly licensed hunters or under age 13.

According to Stooksbury, some of the property is accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicle, but the other is very remote and only accessible by ATV. The use of ATVs allows hunters to reach remote areas and enjoy more hunting opportunity than would be possible otherwise.

However, there are cautions for riding at North Cumberland. Stooksbury said, "We have had problems in the past with people riding in active mining areas, reclaimed mine areas, and timber cutting areas. We have to close some of these areas due to the danger.  ATV riders need to stay out of these areas and should always be aware of where they are riding because closed areas can change at times."

Regardless of where one is riding, safety should always be at the top of the list and foremost on a rider's mind at all times. No ride is worth a life-changing accident. Good ethics and respect for others is second only to safety.

If more ATV riders would adhere to safe and ethical riding practices, the line of demarcation between proponents and opponents of the ATV would shrink dramatically. The result might be even more areas open to ATV use in the future.

Paul Moore is a freelance writer from Henderson, Ky., with publishing credits in more than a dozen national and regional magazines.