“They make it sound like we’re out there everyday ripping and roaring every day. It’s an inexpensive way to be able to enjoy time with your friends and family.” Tonya vickers, of the Zachary Creek Riders
For many residents along the Comite River, a placid waterway that winds through verdant countryside, the growl of an oncoming all-terrain vehicle is as unmistakable as it is unwelcome.
“On a really nice day, you can have 25 to 40 of them,” said Mary Lindsey, who lives near the river in northern East Baton Rouge Parish. “The noise is horrific. Even if you don’t go down there, you know they’re down there.”
For all of its serenity, the Comite River has become a source of intractable controversy in recent years, pitting landowners against off-road vehicle enthusiasts who splash en masse through the shallow waters on their four-wheelers and side-by-sides.
Residents claim the ATV riders — and even monster truck drivers of late — are littering and trespassing on their property with impunity. Tensions have risen over discarded beer cans, loud music and claims that off-road vehicles are causing noticeable harm to the river.
“I’m afraid somebody is going to go postal before it’s all over,” said Gary Norwood, whose family has owned a swath of land abutting the river since before the Civil War.
Norwood blames ATV riders for the erosion of his sandbar, which he said has been losing sand and gravel each summer.
“It’s just a case where people want to come in and trespass on your property and make you like it,” he added. “I’m ready to sue somebody.”
Off-road vehicle riders maintain they have every right to enjoy the state-owned river, and say they have taken pains to discourage boisterous behavior among their own ranks. They said they make a practice of picking up trash and chastising those caught littering.
“The good do have to suffer for the bad,” said Ronnie Mayers, who organized a Facebook group for ATV enthusiasts, a page he has set to “super secret” to prevent aggrieved landowners from monitoring their riding activity.
“The people that act sensibly and drive up and down the Comite and have a good time are not the problem,” Mayers said. “I’ve got a radio on my (ATV), but you’ve got to know when to turn it down.”
Another passionate rider, Tonya Vickers, of the Zachary Creek Riders, said complaints about off-road vehicles are often exaggerated. Like Mayers, though, she blamed a small contingent of riders for the negative attention.
“A lot of it has to do with the 5 percent of the people that don’t mind their p’s and q’s,” Vickers said. “They’re the ones that are making all the rest of us pay for it.”
Emotions reached a fever pitch this summer after the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, responding to environmental concerns, proposed a regulation that would require ATV riders to obtain a permit to drive on the Comite. The permitting process calls for a $100 fee and a number of other steps, including publishing public notices.
If approved by the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, the restriction would apply to all bodies of water protected under the state’s scenic river system, said Bo Boehringer, an agency spokesman. After tabling the measure earlier this summer, the commission is set to revisit the proposal at its Oct. 3 meeting.
State officials believe off-road vehicles operating within streams “have negative consequences on the ecological integrity of those streams,” said Kyle Balkum, a biologist program manager with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Balkum acknowledged, however, that officials “do not have data to demonstrate” those effects on the Comite River.
Residents who have frequented the river for decades said they have noticed some alarming changes that they attribute to the unabated use off-road vehicles. John W. Day, a professor emeritus in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Science at LSU, owns about 50 acres along the Comite and said ATVs have driven away wildlife.
“I used to see lots of water birds on the river, and you don’t see them any more,” Day said. “The noise drives them away, and also the base of the food chain is being affected.”
The effect of off-road vehicles riding on the riverbed, Day said, “is like if you were to take a big wide plow behind a tractor and just plow down the river. The river is continually trying to recover, but we’ve got six months (a year) at least of these people riding every weekend.”
Not all landowners are opposed to the ATVs. Sandra Schober owns property along the Comite and said she has been riding the river for more than 20 years. “I can attest that our treads are far less treacherous to the vegetative soils and riverbeds of the Comite River than the damage caused by floodwaters received annually and the digging and dredging by local sand and gravel companies,” she said.
Schober and others have begun an educational outreach program designed to inform riders of a “code of ethics” for river riding. “The sport of ATV riding is keeping our children off the streets and in this natural habitat where they are learning to fish and enjoy the outdoors,” she added.
Aside from any environmental concerns, some landowners said they are seeking to clarify who actually owns the riverbed. Department of Wildlife and Fisheries officials said the Comite River is a state-owned waterway, citing its listing by the State Land Office.
But some residents said their deeds show their property extends to the middle of the Comite River.
East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux has met with both sides and sought to explain his office’s limitations. “Our legal staff says no one does own out to the middle of the river,” Gautreaux said, “and even if they did, as long as it’s declared a navigable waterway, there’s nothing we can do to stop people from using it.”
Nevertheless, Gautreaux said, his deputies will not tolerate underage drinking, drug use or trespassing by ATV riders who ride up onto private property along the river. A law enforcement task force recently conducted a compliance check on the river.
“Some are abusing it,” Gautreaux said. “It’s a shame because it’s a beautiful little river.”
ATV riders have objected loudly to the restriction proposed by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and they are expected to show up in large numbers at future public meetings. They say they don’t want to lose access to the beautiful course.
“I live to ride the Comite,” Mayers said. “We’ve got one of the greatest riding places right here in Baton Rouge.”
Vickers stressed that riders are only on the river about three days a week between May and October, and on some weekends there is no riding due to inclement weather.
“They make it sound like we’re out there everyday ripping and roaring every day,” she said, referring to the landowners. “It’s an inexpensive way to be able to enjoy time with your friends and family.”
The groups of ATV riders, some of whom come from out of town, have had a positive economic impact on service stations near the river, Vickers said. “On the weekends, you can’t imagine the people that go in there and buy their gas, their oil, their ice, their beer, snacks for the kids,” she said.
But others fear conditions will only worsen without a peaceful resolution. Lindsey, one of the residents along the river, recalled a time when she was at the river with children when a pack of off-road vehicles “went through the middle of them and seemed to take pleasure in terrorizing 3-year-olds.”
Lindsey continued, “This is not a safe situation to continue because it is escalating. Someone is going to get hurt.”