Letter to the Editor:

Often, when discussing the advisability of allowing ATVs in Vilas County, one hears that “the same complaints were made about snowmobiles.”

This statement is made to imply that ATVs will save the economies of Vilas County towns just as snowmobiles did some time ago. Is that a reasonable assumption?

Certainly there are some similarities between ATVs and snowmobiles. They are recreational vehicles powered by internal combustion engines and are ridden on both roads and trails. For the most part, they are trailered to places where it is legal, safer and/or more enjoyable to ride.

But there are very significant differences as well.

Snowmobiles are designed to be ridden on snow and thus are used during the winter while ATVs are primarily designed to be ridden off road during warmer months. The time of year when they are used is the biggest reason that the balance between positive and negative effects is dramatically different for the ATVs as compared to snowmobiles.

Specific to our part of Vilas County:

1. We are flooded with tourists during the summer. We have heard a number of business owners say they have all the business they can handle during the summers. We are setting records dramatically higher than previous highs for room tax (our most accurate measure of tourism) and our campgrounds are normally fully occupied. A shortage of people to work for businesses has become a much bigger problem for most businesses than finding new customers. During the winter, some of these same businesses have been able to stay open only because of snowmobilers; at least in the past. Other businesses do well all year, even in the late winter after snowmobile trails are closed.

2. Many people find loud internal combustion engines unpleasant to hear and smell. The more there are and the closer they are, the more of a negative they present to those not using them. There are far fewer people in Vilas County during the winter to be bothered by snowmobiles and they tend to be out of doors less. When home, they have their windows closed. For these reasons, snowmobiles disturb far fewer people and to a lesser degree than ATVs.

3. Because snowmobiles require snow and the further north you go the longer the snow season, Vilas County has an inherent advantage in attracting snowmobilers as compared to counties (and states) to the south. On the other hand, ATVs have a longer season the further south you go.

4. Tourists are most often here to enjoy a natural experience in a pristine area. The campers, hikers, bikers, kayakers, etc. will be subjected to less of that to the extent they find themselves interacting with ATVs. If their experience becomes diminished, they will be looking for other areas where they can get more of what they seek.

5. Many people tell us that one of the major reasons they come to our area is that ATVs are not allowed. Surprisingly, that is even true of some avid advocates of ATVs. It turns out that while they love riding their machines, they prefer to be away from the negatives when they are not actively using those machines.

6. ATVs/UTVs rut trails, spread invasive species and interfere with wildlife during their breeding season. Snowmobiles have very little or none of these negatives because they are used in the winter when the earth is frozen, seeds are mostly covered by snow and few animals are producing young.

Bottom line is that Vilas County is highly attractive to snowmobilers at the time when their presence is most needed by the businesses and least likely to have negative consequences. Vilas County is less unique for ATV tourists. And those ATV tourists arrive when they are needed less by the businesses and are most likely to bother other tourists and residents.

If Vilas County desires to maximize tourism, it is not only wise to leave some towns ATV free; it is consistent with the principles of our democracy.

Steve Halverson

Boulder Junction