A New Perspective 6-04-02: No More ATV’s at Prairie

Golden Gate Gazette

March 4, 2002

Bad Luck Prairie may be living up to its name for area ATV and swamp buggy users. As of Memorial Day weekend, over the road vehicles (ORVs) will no longer be allowed in the Prairie, which is part of the Picayune State Forest in the Southern Golden Gate Estates.
For years, the site has been the hub of Collier County ATV activity and Division of Foresty (DOF) officials say that use has taken a toll on the environment.
“We’re not trying to take away anyone’s fun,” says DOF Caloosahatchee District Manager Hank Graham. “We are charged with management of the property and we have to start gaining control of the activities within the forest.”
Lifelong resident Sarah Harrelson was surprised and disappointed at the news.
“There’s no other place to go,” she said. “Around here, we can’t even ride on the sidewalk without getting a ticket.”
She says the size of the Prairie provided enough room for everyone to enjoy ATVing.
“It was a perfect place,” she says. “We used to go out there every weekend for something to do. Everybody pretty much knows everybody out there. We heard a couple years ago they were going to shut it down but then they never did.”
First designated a state forest in 1995, the Picayune includes the 53,000 acres of Southern Golden Gate Estates and the agricultural areas within the South Blocks known as the “hole of the doughnut” and the “toe of the boot” and about 23,000 acres of Southern Belle Meade.
Graham says DOF is not shutting down or taking away anything from ORV users.
“It never has been legal,” he says of the ATV use. “We are now starting to enforce the rules that apply to the Picayune and all state forests.”
Similar to regulations in place in the Big Cypress Preserve, only licensed vehicles will be allowed on designated roads. Since ORVs cannot be licensed and there are no designated roads in Bad Luck Prairie, the area will be virtually closed to all vehicles.
Collier County sheriff’s officials use the same regulations to keep ATVs off public roadways and easements, leaving riders few areas outside of their own property to ride the vehicles.
Graham said the DOF did not start enforcing the law sooner, because the state did not own enough of the property and there was no enforcement agency in place.
He said the state now owns 90 percent of the property and the Department of Agriculture has assigned an officer to police the Forest. Graham admitted he didn’t envy the job, which began Memorial Day weekend.
“The law enforcement officer has been advising (users) that things were fixing to change,” Graham said. “The news was not poorly received. Of course they weren’t happy about it. This was their playground and we’re telling them they can’t play there anymore.”
For now, ATV users who show up at the Prairie or are found riding in the area will be told to load up and leave. After July 4, tickets with monetary fines of around $50 will be issued by enforcement officers.
Graham says there is just no arguing that the prolonged ATV use has caused considerable damage, causing soil to become compacted and altering drainage in the Prairie. He says the noise has also affected wildlife.
“It stresses the critters out,” he says. “This is Type 1 (prime) panther habitat.”
According to Graham, litter and dumping problems have also plagued the area.
“We went in there two years ago, brought in manpower and cleared out the Blocks,” he says. “Now it looks as if we’d never been there, that’s how serious a problem it is.”
One year ago, the DOF held a public meeting to discuss allowed uses in the Picayune. About 70 people attended the meeting, requesting a variety of uses from motorized miniature airplanes to public ATV trails.
The current uses include hiking, horseback riding, primitive camping, leashed pets and picnicking.
Graham says another public meeting will be held in 2003 to reassess public uses in the Forest.
“It’s something we will evaluate,” he says of the possibility of establishing future public ATV trails in the Prairie, “But the rules do not allow for us to turn our backs and allow the land to be abused.”
Graham says agricultural law enforcement officers are planning to “keep it friendly” when it comes to informing ATV and swampbuggy users of the rules.
“I don’t envision us chasing down these ATV users,” he says. “We’re not to that point yet, not until after the Fourth of July.”