People who live near Southampton Town’s nature trails or enjoy hiking on them have long complained that motorized dirt bikes are a menace. Too often, they say, their whining engines disturb the calm the preserves offer and their knobby tires damage fragile ecosystems, tearing up plants and disturbing nesting sites. And besides, they say, the motorcycles can pose a serious threat to the people and pets they sometimes meet on blind turns or hillcrests.
With many people unemployed or working from home and kids attending school remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, hopping on a dirt bike for a spin around a nearby trail has become a major temptation, according to town officials charged with overseeing those trails.
“They’re everywhere, and it’s gotten so much worse,” said Laura Smith, the town’s principal environmental analyst who works in the Community Preservation Fund department. “The trails are hard to take back once they know they are there.”
Even though riding a motorcycle is illegal on all public land in Suffolk County — and legal only on private land if a rider has the owner’s written permission — enforcement is hard.
“It’s like whack-a-mole,” Ms. Smith said, because police have to catch riders in the act — no easy feat, as they zip into and out of preserves wherever they like.
As audacious as dirt bikers might be now, their behavior pales in comparison to a group that set up a camp, where they stored their motorcycles and gathered for barbecues, on private property adjacent to public trails in the woods north of Bridgehampton about five years ago, Ms. Smith said.
Town workers discovered the camp when they were visiting a neighboring property that had been purchased with CPF money. “During the annual inspection, we saw all these trails had been cut to the town property,” she said. “We followed them back to where there was a big trailer, a fire pit, chairs, and a little awning.” The owner was ticketed by police, and the town eventually purchased his land through the CPF, she said.
The problem extends west of the canal as well, Ms. Smith said, with bikers illegally using trails from Hampton Bays and Flanders to Westhampton.
“They’re making their own trails and destroying everything,” said Dai Dayton, the president of the Long Pond Greenbelt, who said the 600-acre network of preserved parcels between Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton and the Long Island Power Authority right-of-way that bisects them are common places for illegal riding. “This spring I had eight drive by me,” she said. “I took a picture of each one.” She called police and an officer stopped one of the motorcyclists leaving the trail, she said.
Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki said police take their enforcement duty seriously. Sometimes officers ride their own ATVs into the preserves, searching for signs of illegal riders, he said.
About two weeks ago, one such patrol caught a group of riders on trails near the Southampton Recreation Center in North Sea. Six bikes were impounded that day, the chief said. Those convicted of riding illegally on public land can face fines of up to $250.
While police have traditionally relied on an ATV patrol to track down dirt bikers, they have a new weapon in their arsenal, a drone that can be sent aloft high over a preserve to watch for dirt bikes entering and existing, sometimes even following the riders home.
“We can approach the households and talk to parents,” the chief said. “We are finding in some cases, the parents were not aware that it was illegal. In some cases, parents are happy we are intervening.”
Ms. Dayton said for years, places like the Long Pond Greenbelt were protected by a town open space ranger, who, while not having the ability to issue a summons, could report illegal riders to police and act as a witness in court, if required. That extra layer of protection was lost when the ranger retired, she said.
The good news, according to Ms. Smith, is that the town has hired a new ranger, but he is coming from the town fire marshal’s office and has yet to transfer to his new position.
Town Councilwoman Julie Lofstad, who is the board’s liaison to the trails advisory committee, said the new ranger should provide some help. “It is an ongoing problem,” she said of dirt bikes in preserves. “It’s tough for police to find a guy on a trail that might run 3, 4, or 5 miles.”
Ms. Lofstad said when she was a teen, she owned a dirt bike and her friends had them, too. “I understand people want to use their toys,” she said. “But it’s illegal, and if it is illegal, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said the town has received a number of complaints about trail riding this spring. He linked the activity to the coronavirus pandemic. “The kids weren’t at school. They were home more and they were looking for something to do, so they took to the woods,” he said.
But he added dirt bike riders face an uphill battle when it comes to finding a place to legally ride.
“Dirt bikes are loud, they are fast, and they do present a danger to people in the woods,” he said. “I don’t see this as something the town would be involved in. It would have to be on private property — and only if the town allowed it. If some individual had a 100-acre property and wanted to create something in the middle — maybe.”
But he added that other venues for motorized sports, including the Bridge Race Circuit and the Long Island Dragway in Westhampton, had been forced to close in large measure because of noise complaints brought by neighbors.
The noise of dirt bikes, which can disturb wildlife, forcing a robin to leave its nest or a fox to leave its den, is hardly their only harmful environmental impact, said Marty Shea, the town’s chief environmental analyst.
“Anytime an animal has to use energy reserves to leave their nest, it affects their health and their ability to care for their young,” he said, “but dirt bikes on trails are bad for a host of reasons.”
For one thing, he said motorcycle tires tear up natural vegetation, including rare plants. If a tree limb falls across a trail, dirt bikers will simply blaze a new trail around the obstruction, destroying still more natural vegetation, he said.
Some turtles look for sandy soil exposed to sun to lay their eggs, and the weight of dirt bikes can crush them before they have a chance to hatch, he added.
Plus, he said, trail bikes leave ruts on the trails that can cause a hazard to hikers or someone on a bicycle. And they can scare horses, causing them to throw their riders, he added.
Ken Dorph, who lives on the border of Sag Harbor and the Long Pond Greenbelt, said his family has endured the disturbances caused by dirt bikes racing along the trails and through his property for years. Finally, he said, it seems the town police have gotten the message and have begun to take complains more seriously.
But he said the larger issue is the town needs to develop a broader management plan to oversee everything from illegal dirt bike riding to an out-of-control deer population that is upsetting the ecology.
“The towns in general on the East End have spent all this money for preserves,” he said, “and they don’t have the resources to manage them.”
“Think of the money spent on open space and the number of people enjoying it,” added Ms. Dayton, who said more enforcement was needed. “It’s only going to happen when someone gets hurt.”