All-terrain vehicles, reviled by environmentalists and others for their noise and the erosion they can cause in sensitive forest ecosystems, are about to be banned from state land by Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration. But ATVs and their riders have come to the rescue this week as Vermont struggles to recover from flooding wrought by the remnants of Hurricane Irene.
Along Riford Brook Road in the Green Mountain hamlet of Braintree, ATVs have been the workhorses this week, ferrying food, water and medicines to residents who can't climb down and back up the ladders now placed where bridges used to be.
In Killington, a woman who went into respiratory distress was safely transported part of the way to Rutland Regional Medical Center by ATV. Authorities say one ambulance brought her to the end of a washed-out bridge and she had to be transferred to an ATV to cover the rough terrain left by Sunday's flood. A second ambulance took her the rest of the way to the hospital.
"She's fine now," said hospital president Tom Huebner.
Braintree resident Kristie Tabor, a 21-year-old clerk at a car dealership, said she's especially glad this week that ATVs are popular in her rural neighborhood.
"Everyone has them around here, and they've come in really handy because we didn't have a road," she said.
At the Bethel fire house, resident Ron Trask, 63, stopped by with a muddy Honda Foreman 400 ATV on the back of his pickup after ferrying a man to an otherwise inaccessible house to get his pets. The two loaded four cats and two mourning doves onto the rig and made their way back down a mountain.
"Don't get me started," Trask said with a grin when asked about the bad reputation ATVs have among many environmentalists. "If people go in and start tearing up people's property, yeah, I put that down," he said. "But these things have actually been lifelines in all of this, as far as I'm concerned."
ATVs have been hotly debated in Vermont. Former Republican Gov. James Douglas' administration approved limited use of ATVs on state land, despite protests from lawmakers and environmental groups. Douglas left office in January, and Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration has been moving to reinstate what had been a ban on recreational uses of the machines on public lands.
"ATVs are a really great way to get around," said Jesse Mastine, owner of Mastine Motor Sports in Bethel, which sells and services ATVs, motorcycles and snowmobiles. "ATVs and (off-road) motorcycles have a pretty bad name in terms of the relationship with environmentalists and things like that," he said. "They don't really care for ATVers ... but it seems like they're the only ones really saving anybody right now."
Vermont is not the first place where the machines have come in handy after a disaster. In January, ATVs were used to evacuate people from more than 30 homes left isolated during flooding on Mount Hood in Oregon. They were used last year in Arkansas to search for victims when flash flooding killed 16.
Even those who want to limit their recreational use acknowledge that ATVs are useful in some circumstances. "There's a time and place for ATVs and this was definitely one of them," said Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
Anthony Iarrapino, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation and a critic of ATV abuses, said he doesn't think any positive public relations ATVs get this week will change the terms of the debate over them in Vermont.
"I don't accept the premise that any positive PR that ATVs get for doing a work purpose should necessarily be to the benefit of people who just want to ride them for fun in sensitive areas that have been conserved by the state," he said.
Capt. Ray Keefe, who oversees many of the hardest-hit areas of Vermont for the State Police, took a similar view.
"I think an ATV is much like any other piece of equipment," Keefe said. "They're invaluable in a situation like this," but can be abused. He pointed to a situation in his own neighborhood in Hartford, where a former neighbor set up an ATV and dirt bike track on his property and ended up being "charged and recharged" with violating local noise ordinances.
"This person didn't understand that his recreation was our nightmare," Keefe said.