State eyes ban of ATVs on Comite, other scenic rivers

Landowners drew a step closer Thursday to halting the widespread use of off-road vehicles on the Comite River, a popular hobby that has become increasingly controversial in north East Baton Rouge Parish.

After hearing from dozens of four-wheeler enthusiasts, environmentalists and aggrieved property owners, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission adopted a notice of intent to outlaw the vehicles on all 78 streams protected under the state’s scenic river system.

Riders granted a permit from the state would be excepted from the ban, but state officials made clear they consider off-road vehicles detrimental to the health of the Comite and its surrounding habitat.

They noted other Southern states have banned all-terrain vehicles from their rivers outright.

“I love the outdoors as all of y’all do, but we are the stewards of the outdoors,” said Ronny Graham, the commission’s chairman, addressing a standing-room-only crowd. “We’re just trying to get through this, and sometimes we have to do things that are not popular.”

The unanimous vote set in motion a public comment period that extends through Nov. 29. None of the commissioners spoke in favor of the use of off-road vehicles on scenic streams, and several appeared willing to adopt the ban when the measure is put to a final vote.

“I don’t think it was ever intended to have that many ATVs on the river bed,” said Stephen Sagrera, another commission member, adding he would oppose restrictions on waterways not included in the scenic river system.

Department of Wildlife and Fisheries officials presented new findings to the commission that suggest off-road vehicles are harming ecological diversity in the Comite.

Samples from segments of the river that are popular routes for four-wheeler and monster truck drivers yielded fewer fish than parts that are largely free of off-road vehicle riding, said Brian Alford, a biologist with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

According to the department, off-road vehicles increase erosion, uproot aquatic plants, crush juvenile fish, disturb nesting sites, reduce invertebrate population and generate “substantial noise” along a waterway.

Several landowners described the impact on wildlife they’ve observed in recent years, a decline they blame on off-road vehicles.

“This problem has reached horrendous scale on the Comite River and we should be asking ourselves how and why that occurred,” said Charles Williams, a Greenwell Springs resident who has paddled several Louisiana rivers.

“That’s a genie that we need to get back into the bottle.”

The department’s proposal met impassioned opposition from off-road vehicle riders, who said the restrictions would deprive them of a past-time they have handed down to two generations.

Shayh Romero, a frequent rider who lives along the river, told the commission she and her friends “don’t want our children to be raised on the street in the city.”

Referring to life along the Comite, she said, “We fish it; we ride it; we live it. This is not a weekend retreat. This is a lifestyle.”

Some opponents of the ban said complaints of littering and other forms of disrespect attributed to off-road vehicles riders have been overblown.

“If you have ever been there, you’d see why we cherish this,” said Doug Barton, a frequent rider whose family also owns property along the river.

“I can bring you to some of the same fishing holes I’ve fished in all my life and I’ll catch fish every time.”

Despite the vote, Barton said he remains hopeful the commission can be persuaded and a resolution reached.

“We’re all adults,” he said. “I really hope we can get the word out to the whole state.”