Comite River dispute over ATVs at standoff

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Locked metal gates were no match for dogged ATV riders prepared to scale any obstacle to gain access to the bed of the Comite River. At one point, the frustrated private property owner installed surveillance cameras to catch trespassers on video. The cameras disappeared, just as his livelihood has over the past few years.

"They're determined, no matter what, to get past these gates," said Shane Rush. He owns a majority stake in more than 300 acres of prime real estate along the Comite in northeastern East Baton Rouge Parish, featuring about 5,000 feet of riverfront land up to and including portions of the river itself.

So a few years ago, after the state shut down his decades-old dirt mining business, Rush and his family opened an all-terrain vehicle park on their property.

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," Rush joked. He said he had no other viable option.

That move sparked a pitched battle over use of the river, ultimately leading to a state ban on four-wheeling there. Rush has gone to court over what he believes is the government's violation of his property rights.

After Mudd Pits ATV Park opened in 2011, four-wheeling on the placid river spiked. Large groups, numbering as many as a few dozen motor vehicles and sometimes more than 100 people, powered up and down the river in snorkel-equipped ATVs, sometimes accompanied by sound systems blaring music. Some left litter or broken down trucks and ATVs, neighbors said.

Other landowners along the river banded together, saying four-wheelers were destroying the Comite's ecology.

Biologists with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries studied the area to see whether ATVs were terrorizing wildlife, displacing river bugs and scaring off or killing other animals.

Since March, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission has banned most use of motor or tracked vehicles on waterways belonging to the state's Natural and Scenic River System, which includes the Comite River — a winding, sand-bottom river with lots of recreation-friendly beaches.

While spurts of heavy rain have kept water unusually high — too high for proper four-wheeling — and summertime heat has only recently begun to reach levels conducive to river recreation, many area residents say the new rule has dramatically reduced four-wheeling on the river.

"It's been remarkably quiet since that happened," said John W. Day, a professor emeritus at LSU's School of the Coast and Environment whose property is a decent paddle upstream from Rush's land.

He said that as four-wheeling increased, riverbank erosion has become a bigger problem, and some critters fled.

Turtles are particularly vulnerable to the ATVs because of the reptile's nesting habits, he said.

"They'll just disappear in the sand," Day said. "Those are the kinds of things they would've just killed."

Wildlife and Fisheries recently approved a study to find out whether ATV use has hurt turtles, said biologist Kyle Balkum. A study before the ATV ban was approved showed that high-traffic areas had fewer river critters altogether, and fewer kinds of fish and insects.

Scientists hope the ban will spur an ecological renaissance in areas they say were most affected by ATV riders. For example, spotted bass, a popular game fish that showed up in low-traffic areas but not high-traffic areas, should rebound, Balkum said.

"What we were most concerned about was the destruction of the habitat," said Joel Lindsey, a neighbor of Day's who helped push for the ATV ban.

A bird watcher, Lindsey said he hasn't seen as many blue herons or kingfishers near the river as he used to.

But while habitat destruction has been a big driver in the push to rid the river of four-wheelers, other issues, most notably noise, also have played a factor.

"It sounds like a big party going on," Lindsey said, "especially if they've got guns."

Debbie Pearson, who recently moved away from a house about a quarter-mile from the river, said the noise often kept her from sleeping.

"Cars sounded like jetliners," Pearson said. She and other residents said one person brought a military surplus vehicle weighing at least a ton into the river.

Melinda Michaels, a current riverside resident, said people on the four-wheelers, or in some cases larger trucks, often were inconsiderate and belligerent. "You're sitting there on your beach and here comes a monster truck," Michaels said.

And at the root of it all, for some landowners at least, sits Rush's operation.

"We're blamed for every bit of it," he said.

Wildlife and Fisheries forced Rush to shut down his mining operation a few years ago, claiming he was mining river silt within 100 feet of the Comite River, which would violate of the Scenic Rivers Act. Rush said he never dug that close. Even if he did, Rush said, the state agency denied him due process and should not regulate his use of the river, which he considers his private property.

"I love that river," Rush said. "I'm not trying to destroy it."

His federal lawsuit, filed in November, also claims that the Comite River should have been excluded from waterways protected by the Scenic Rivers Act because it isn't navigable. It should be treated not as the state's property but as private property, he contends.

The state has tried, unsuccessfully thus far, to have the lawsuit dismissed. At the very least, the state says in federal filings, the suit should be heard in state court, where a similar lawsuit filed by Rush against LDWF is pending.

If a judge were to side with Rush, the ATV ban could be deemed unenforceable. But if that were to happen, local law enforcement still could arrest people for trespassing on the river, something that for years has been done in East Feliciana Parish.

"The Sheriff's Office writes the tickets, and we enforce it," said Sam D'Aquilla, district attorney for the Feliciana parishes, adding that they consider the river non-navigable and, therefore, private property that can't be trespassed upon.

Since the motor vehicle ban went into effect, Wildlife and Fisheries agents have issued 18 citations — 17 in one stop.

"They had a pretty big group out there that day," said Adam Einck, a spokesman for the department's enforcement division.

Einck said agents rely heavily on tips about the presence of ATV riders to most efficiently patrol the river. In some cases, agents likely will have to ride ATVs near the river to properly patrol the rugged terrain, he said.

"If people are out there using the waterways improperly, we're going to try to put a stop to it," Einck said.

Only Wildlife and Fisheries agents can issue the citations, which will be handled by the District Attorney's Office similar to other tickets, said East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III.

East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's deputies will arrest trespassers near the river if landowners want to press charges, sheriff's office spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks said. But, she said, sometimes alleged trespassers are gone by the time deputies arrive.

Ultimately, Rush said he hopes he can return to dirt mining. For that, he needs attorney Donna Grodner to win his case.

Until then, he'll keep the ATV park open. Riders there can use acres of trails and water-filled pits. But they are required to sign a waiver acknowledging Rush warned them not to leave his property — something he hopes shields personal liability when ATV riders enter the river on his land and travel along the waterway.

That means cleaning up after four-wheelers who come onto his property both legally, after paying his $10 fee, and illegally.

Someone recently brought down a power line trying to get around a locked metal gate, he said. The electrician who came out to take care of the problem said whoever did it was lucky: Had the power line fallen a few feet lower, the rider might have had a fatal shock.

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Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com

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