OLD SAYBROOK — Just four years after its acquisition as a conservation area, the protected vernal pools, scrub-shrub swamp and Atlantic white cedar swamps of The Preserve are being damaged by frequent use of all-terrain vehicles.
“Lately there has been more complaints about ATV use than ever,” said Ray Allen, the director of Parks and Recreation in Old Saybrook. “We are not sure if it is related to what Eversource did to widen their powerline sections or if maybe a few kids just got new ATVs.”
At the time of its purchase, the nearly 1,000 acres located in Old Saybrook, Westbrook and Essex that make up The Preserve, was the largest unprotected coastal forest between Boston and New York. It took fifteen years for environmental groups, local residents and government officials together to save the parcel from development.
Despite that effort and despite the fact that motorized vehicles are not allowed on the property, ATV use has caused significant damage to the park.
“They make the vernal pools bigger,” Allen said. “A little patch of mud is a lot more fun for the ATV to go through, but that turns it into a bigger muddy area and destroys the natural flora and fauna.”
“The riders are moving boulders, going through waterways, building jumps and other unauthorized activities, and the committee is trying to find ways to stop them,” resident Glenda Sohl reported at a meeting of the Old Saybrook Conservation Commission in August.
According to Allen and Conservation Commission minutes, the town is discussing a variety of possible methods of controlling the problem, which range from installing cameras, to increasing signage discouraging ATV use, to requesting an increased police presence around or near The Preserve.
Bob Nussbaum, vice president of the Essex Land Trust, said that there hasn’t been ATV use in the portion of The Preserve managed by the Essex Land Trust, but the trust is working with Eversource to make sure the open spaces created by the power lines do not become easy access points for vehicles.
“We try to keep our trailhead entrances suitable for walkers and bicyclists but too narrow for ATVs. We work with Eversource on managing the lock system on the gates to our shared Rights of Way, and are in the process with them of narrowing one of the entrances,” Nussbaum said. “We also have active stewards monitoring the trails, as well as input from abutters, and notify the police as necessary.”
For decades the preserve was private property and ATV use was, therefore, permitted. This is the key problem, Allen said.
“It was privately owned land, so whatever was done out there was done and people likely want to continue,” Allen said. “We are working on writing letter to abutters stating that ATVs are not allowed to make sure everyone is informed.”
With the relatively recent acquisition of the Preserve, the town and State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection have not yet established permanent and defined trails and maps.
“Right now, there are 26 miles of unmarked trails in the preserve. We are in the process of gathering all information about them to figure out whether to mark them or close them,” Allen said. “We are hoping to finish up the fact-finding mission for determining trails in the next six months. From there, who knows how long it will take to build the trails.”
There hasn’t yet been a decision on whether trails, once established, will allow for mountain bikes, horses and hikers, but it is certain that the preserve will remain closed to ATV use. As of 2016, no park in Connecticut allows the use of ATVs, with the exception of paraplegics with a hunting permit.
“There is no place nearby dedicated to ATVs,” Allen said. “There is no place really for them to go, so they come on our land.”