ATVs Fun Or Foe

By , Bob Schulz | June 2, 2002
From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 2002

Despite layers of warm clothing, the pre-dawn chill wormed its way into the hunter's bones. The dawning sun spread light across the tree tops on the ridge in front of him. Soon its warmth would steal into the hunter's stand. For deer hunters, this is a magical time of day.

The hunter was reflecting on all the planning and scouting he had done for last two months. He knew for certain that deer were still using the same trails he was guarding. Suddenly, he heard the familiar, steady trot of hooves in dry leaves. Eighty yards away, a large rack of antlers appeared at the edge of a clump of dark green cedars.

He grunted a couple of times and waited. A nice buck stepped out from behind the trees and started toward him, sniffing the air for the phantom buck the hunter had imitated with the grunt call.

The hunter cautiously raised his bow. When the buck was about 45 yards away he suddently stopped and turned slightly. His ears twisted like radar antennae, and his tail flicked nervously from side to side.

The hunter soon heard what had alerted the deer. At first just an annoying buzz, the sound gradually grew deafening in the quiet woods. The buck had already fled.

Only a few seconds later an ATV approached his stand. The driver shut off the motor, looked up at him and asked him if he had seen any deer yet.

All Terrain Vehicles (ATV) have been at the center of controversy for a number of years. The conflict mentioned here is one of many that have occurred between ATV riders and outdoors enthusiasts, not to mention resource managers. The cause of the problems are not the vehicles themselves, but the thoughtless and sometimes illegal behavior of the riders.

For example, we recently received an e-mail from a private landowner who was concerned about her neighbors riding their ATVs up and down the stream that ran through her property. The activity was causing some major erosion problems and harming the quality of the water. The landowner knew such activity was against the law and casually mentioned it to her neighbor, but the neighbor responded by saying, "That law doesn't apply to us. That is only for state land. Besides that, what's the harm?"

She faced a dilemma. She wanted to keep peace with her neighbor, but she also wanted to stop the damage to the stream. That's why she contacted us.

The Missouri Revised Statutes, Chapter 304, Traffic Regulations, Section 304.013, Number 2 reads, "No person shall operate an off-road vehicle within any stream or river in this state ... " That seems clear.

The rest of the sentence offers some exceptions: "... except that off-road vehicles may be operated within waterways which flow within the boundaries of land which an off-road vehicle operator owns."

This exception allows landowners to enter streams on their own property. However, landowners should be aware that such activities will harm their property, as well as that of their neighbors.

The statute continues "... or for agricultural purposes within the boundaries of land which an off-road vehicle operator owns or has permission to be upon ... " This allows the use of ATVs in streams for agricultural purposes (herding cattle, fixing fences, etc.) on land owned by the ATV operator or on land used for agricultural purposes by the operator with permission of the landowner. This would also apply to land that an ATV operator rents or leases.

The statute continues, " ... or for the purpose of fording such stream or river of this state at such road crossings as are customary or part of the highway system." This allows ATV operators to cross streams at fords that have customarily been used and are established as such. It also allows ATVs to cross a river or stream at a recognized ford that is part of the county or state highway system. This does not, however, allow people to establish fords for their convenience.

A violation of this law is considered a class C misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $300 and/or 15 days in jail. If damages occur, the attorney general or county prosecutor may institute a civil action which could cost you $1,000 per day of violation. A weekend of driving an ATV in a stream could get very costly.

The reason for having such a law is that riding an ATV in a stream can cause a lot of damage. It does not merely inconvenience someone else, it starts a chain reaction of environmental damage that can move upstream and downstream.

According to research conducted by the Missouri Department of Conservation, ATV activity significantly increases turbidity in streams. Turbidity is caused by the suspension of fine soil particles from stream bed and stream bank erosion. Such erosion can be caused by an off-road vehicle racing through a stream bed or up and down the stream banks. Increased turbidity, or murkiness, blocks sunlight and inhibits the growth of plants that are the most important food source for aquatic insects, worms, crayfish and other animals that, in turn, become food for fish, other aquatic animals and some terrestrial animals, like herons and raccoons.

In addition, this fine sediment often settles to the bottom downstream from the damaged area. Once-deep holes become shallower and warmer. Spawning habitat is covered by sediment, and increased water temperatures make conditions unsuitable for game fish, such as smallmouth bass.

ATVs also can degrade streambank integrity. The vegetation along the banks of a river or stream helps hold soil in place during floods or high water levels. Once this vegetation is damaged or uprooted by an ATV, serious erosion is likely. The land most likely to be lost-by you or your neighbor-is bottom land, the most productive and valuable acreage on most properties.

Given the amount of damage they can cause, it makes sense to keep ATVs away from streams, even on your own property.

There are established trails set aside for ATV use in Missouri. For information on established trails, visit the Midwest Trail Riders Association Web page at.

A little knowledge and courtesy will protect the environment, keep you from getting a fine and enhance your enjoyment of your ATV.

The ATV Operator's Pledge

A unwritten code of ethics governs much of hunters' behavior afield. Likewise, ATV ethics rely on an honor system. The ATV industry and user groups consistently encourage responsible use of ATVs. They suggest ATV riders pledge to adhere to a code of ethics similar to the following:

  • I will respect public and private property.
  • I will use only ATV-designated areas and established trails.
  • I will respect the rights of all outdoor users.
  • I will not litter.
  • I will not operate an ATV in a river or stream.
  • I will respect stream-side vegetation and its importance to the stream.
  • I will respect all natural areas and minimize my impact.
  • I will obey all laws pertaining to the use of off-road vehicles.
  • I will always think about safety.

Three Rs

  • When operating an off-road vehicle, remember the three Rs:
  • When you ride for Recreation,
  • always ride Respectfully
  • and Responsibly

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Bertha Bainer