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, a frustrated landowner 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.

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