TOWNSEND — Updated laws regulating the use of off-road vehicles and increasing the penalties for illegal use will give conservationists a stronger tool in eliminating illegal motorized traffic in sensitive open spaces.
“We’re very happy with the new rules,” said Patricia Huckery, New England District superintendent of the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife.
The regulations, updated in 2010, require off highway vehicles, all terrain vehicles and dirt bikes to be registered and have a plate, Huckery said.
The plates will give law enforcement officials another tool in tracking down illegal riders.
“It’s just plain difficult to catch someone red-handed,” she said. “Some people in Townsend are doing a real good job of ID-ing where the vehicles are coming from.”
Emily Norton, president of the Friends of Willard Brook, saw two people on a Jeep-style ATV ride into view through wetlands, an activity prohibited under the law.
“They were people my age,” the retired teacher said. “They should have known better.”
Land no longer must be posted if a landowner does not want to allow OHV travel on the property.
“You cannot travel with a vehicle on anyone’s property without written permission. That’s absolutely critical. If someone is on our land illegally they can no longer say oh, I didn’t know,” Sharon Jordan said.
Jordan is a member of an advisory group for the Executive Office of Environmental and Energy Affairs and a Lunenburg conservationist.
If a walker sees an OHV operating were it should not be, the best thing to do is get as many details about the vehicle and rider as possible and contact the local police department or the Massachusetts Environmental Police, she said.
“We have a good collaboration with the environmental police. They set up an enforcement team and we do it as a task force,” Townsend Police Lt. David Profit said.
If an ATV can be tracked through the trails to where it is garaged, Huckery said the first step is often a letter.
“It’s all an education effort I think,” she said.
Under the new law, fines for repeat offenders can be as large as $1,000 with additional assessments for subsequent violations, according to a pamphlet prepared by the Townsend Conservation Commission that will be mailed to Townsend residents.
Vehicles can also confiscated, Huckery said.
Fees and fines generated by the program will be used to acquire and maintain trails. A portion, 25 percent, will be retained by the agency issuing the ticket, she said.
“You’ve got to look at these properties we’re buying. They’re all open. The primary reason we’re buying them is protecting the habitat for wildlife,” Huckery said.
Mass. Fish and Wildlife purchased a sand pit south of the center of town “that’s a motorized vehicle magnet,” she said.
This area will be closely monitored. Rare snakes and endangered turtles have been spotted there. “It reeks of turtle nesting habitat,” Huckery said.
Laws for youth drivers also changed. Riders 10 to 14 years old must be supervised by an adult and can only ride on private property in preparation for a race. Riders from 14 to 16 years old must be supervised by an adult. All operators under the age of 18 must attend a safety course.
The adult must have completed training through the environmental police and the size of the vehicles the children can ride are limited.
The new laws came about in a spirit of cooperation between folks who were concerned about children, OHV dealers and enthusiasts, and conservationists, Jordan said.
Sean Kearney, an eight-year-old boy in Plymouth was killed in 2006 when he was playing on a neighbor’s ATV. His parents had not even given permission for the boy to be on the vehicle, Jordan said. His mother now serves on the same advisory committee as Jordan.
To report violations contact Townsend police at 978-597-6214 or the environmental police at 800-632-8075.
Information on training and registration is available on the Massachusetts Environmental Police website: www.mass.gov/dfwele/dle/.