When Randy Harden, the president of the Wisconsin ATV Association, was asked last summer to discuss the challenges of allowing utility vehicles onto public trails, he wasn’t sure how to respond.
“I just didn’t know. I didn’t know what the right questions were,” he said.
Now, Harden and other land managers across the nation have a better grasp of the questions — although not all the answers — as side-by-side riders are starting to get some recreational opportunities.
Wisconsin is planning to start a pilot program for UTVs in select counties, Minnesota recently passed a state law allowing limited UTV use on public lands and the popular Hatfield McCoy trail system is in the midst of a first-ever trial for side-by-sides.
The expanded recreational opportunities would be a huge bonus to the powersports industry, which is already seeing growth in the UTV market. Although new UTV sales numbers are not counted by the Motorcycle Industry Council, industry sources estimate the new sales growth to be in the double digits.
John Tranby, Arctic Cat’s marketing and communications manager, can’t put a number on how many more sales would be generated by additional recreational opportunities, “but what it does do is open it up to people who may not have large tracts of land to run a unit like this.”
Just how UTVs would affect public trails is still largely unknown. Here’s some of the questions that land managers are tackling:
- Width: UTVs can be much wider than ATVs. Yamaha’s ’06 Rhino 660 is 54 inches wide compared to 42 inches for a Wolverine 450 or 46 inches for a Raptor 700R. The extended width can be a problem for some states, which limit trails to 48 inches wide.
- Weight: Side-by-sides can be hundreds of pounds heavier than ATVs. The previously mentioned Rhino is more than 500 pounds heavier than both the Raptor and Wolverine. The additional weight has land managers worried about possible impacts to the trails, including potential excessive erosion or damaging ruts.
- Safety: Can side-by-sides handle the same terrain as ATVs? That’s something land managers will have to seriously examine. There’s already evidence that some UTVs can’t handle switchbacks as effortlessly as ATVs can. But the recreational performance of the UTV would likely improve if there’s more public trail access, Tranby said. “If we get the trail systems (and) more people have access, the machines will be reflective of the capability necessary for the trails,” he said.
Here’s what land access is available or will be available this riding season, according to industry sources.
The 500-mile trail system in southern West Virginia has announced a 90-day trial system for select UTVs for its easiest trails. The 90-day period started June 1, but expect that date to be extended until the end of the riding season on Nov. 1, said Jeffery Lusk, the trail system’s executive director.
“We’re seeing a lot more of our older riders, which were historically ATV and dirt bike riders, purchasing these machines,” Lusk said. “They want to do their sport, but they’re looking for a different type of machine.
“And this is what really surprised me — we’re seeing a lot of families, husband-and-wife duos” riding UTVs, he said.
The UTV trial on Hatfield McCoy is limited to five side-by-side vehicles — Kawasaki’s Mule, Suzuki’s QUV, Yamaha’s Rhino, Polaris’ Ranger and Arctic Cat’s Prowler — and has several rules, including that drivers have to be at least 18 years old and passengers must be at least 16 years old.
“What we were worried about with the passengers is their ability to touch the floorboard of the machine,” Lusk said. “We felt that a passenger that could not put their feet on the floorboard could be thrown from the machine.”
Before UTVs were allowed on the trails, Lusk said his agency did quite a bit of test riding. Their findings represent mixed news for the industry. The additional width of the vehicle did not negatively affect the trail. But, “we did find that a lot of utility vehicles can not navigate the switchbacks on our blue trails,” trails that have a moderate difficulty. To successfully handle the switchback, UTV riders sometimes had to stop the vehicle, back up and then go forward again.
“We felt like that would create an unsafe situation condition for the folks that were following that vehicle because they may be stopping on an incline,” Lusk said.
That’s why UTVs, at least currently, are only being allowed on the system’s easiest trails, which still represent more than 200 miles of riding.
But there is positive news as well. For the first 30 days of the trial period, no safety incidents were reported by UTV riders, Lusk said.
He also said the trail agency will likely do even more studying of the side-by-side’s impact on trails after this riding season.
The Wisconsin ATV Association is working with county and state agencies to start a pilot program for UTVs on public trails in about a half dozen counties.
Harden, the association’s president, hopes to have county officials study the selected trails for any kind of excessive wear. If no such data is found, Harden's group could go to the state legislature in the spring to ask for statewide clearance for UTVs on public trails.
“Everybody keeps saying we’re not going to be able to do our trail systems if the ATVs keep getting bigger and bigger,” Harden said. “But in reality, we’re engineering our trails better and we’re making them wider.
“We’ll have to bring our snowmobile community into this because we do share a lot of trails. That’s why we have to go slow at this.”
Yamaha has donated a Rhino to the pilot program. Proceeds from the Rhino will be used to pay for the trail surveyors.
Minnesota recently passed a state law allowing UTVs, described by the legislation as an ATV that has a dry weight of 900 to 1,500 pounds, limited public access. UTVs will be allowed on forest roads, minimum maintenance roads and trails designated or signed for such vehicles.
Copyright 2006 Powersports Business