In the depths of winter and the heat of summer, for the past 15 years, law enforcement teams have been taking to the woods of the Central Pine Barrens twice per month to crack down on the illegal use of all-terrain vehicles in the vast swaths of preserved land throughout central Long Island.
Drawing from DEC Environmental Conservation Police and Forest Rangers, New York State Troopers and and Suffolk County Park Rangers, Police and Deputy Sheriffs, about a half dozen teams of two officers can be found on any given detail searching for illegal activities in the woods.
The Multi-Agency ATV Task Force Detail, organized by the Central Pine Barrens Commission, is lead by Arthur Pendzick, a longtime Suffolk County Park Ranger who has served as the Chairman of the Suffolk County Pine Barrens Law Enforcement Association.
“ATVs tear up pine barrens trails,” he said on a recent Saturday, as he met up with law enforcement teams on quads at the New York State Trooper barracks in Riverside. He added that riders of ATVs often scare hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers in the woods, as well as making a lot of noise that annoys homeowners in the pine barrens and also scares animals.
“People have been thrown off of horseback, and bikers have fallen off their bikes” when passed by a speeding ATV, he said, adding that some high tension electric wire towers in the depths of the pine barrens are beginning to lean because of the erosion caused by dirt bikes and quads.
He frequently recalls one case of a man who lived next door to the woods in Wading River who was barbecuing one afternoon when a posse of ATVs drove by in the woods, kicking up a dust cloud that ruined $100 worth of steaks.
Finding people using ATVs in the woods isn’t an easy job. Ninety percent of suspects flee when they encounter law enforcement, and Mr. Pendzick has seen three officers get seriously hurt, one of whom is now in a wheelchair, while attempting to catch them. While the task force has a no-pursuit policy, he’s quick to point out that ATV users without a prior conviction who don’t flee simply face fines and the impounding of their quad or dirt bike, but if they flee and are caught they will face criminal charges.
ATVs and dirt bikes can’t be used on any public lands on Long Island, though they are legal upstate and can be used on private land, with the property owner’s permission.
But with 100,000 acres of preserved wild lands in the Central Pine Barrens, some people are still willing to risk a ride through the woods, believing it is unlikely they will be caught. They need to be observed in action by the police in order to receive a citation, so without the patrols in the woods, finding them would be a near-impossible task.
Suffolk County has, at times, provided a helicopter or small plane to assist in locating ATVs during the task force details.
On a recent brisk Saturday, with a light dusting of snow on the ground, State Troopers Fabio Daino and Peter Nunziata headed out from the Riverside barracks to search the woods in East Quogue for ATV riders. They were cheerful, despite the cold. The sky was clear and they were looking ahead to a several hour shift doing a job that they love.
They pointed out that, while they will be in the woods for several hours, most recreational ATV users will only be in the woods for about an hour. The greatest ATV activity is in late afternoon, just before dinner, and after school during the week — the details are held at constantly changing times and locations, to give officers the element of surprise.
Mr. Pendzick and Suffolk County Park Ranger Ryan Hutnick, who were acting as scouts on this day’s detail, mused about the Southampton Town Board’s recent decision to nix a proposed golf course and housing development not far from where they were, a 168-acre site on Spinney Road.
That property, they said, was one where they’d found ATV riders in the past.
As they headed out to scout more areas in the woods, Mr. Pendzick reflected on the lessons learned from the past 15 years, during which time he’s seen a sharp decline in the number of ATVs in the woods here.
Still, he said, many parents buy ATVs for their kids for Christmas — they can be sold on Long Island, though dealers are required to let customers know they can’t be ridden on public lands here.
“People get hurt and killed on ATVs,” he said. “Kids don’t register or insure them, and it becomes a major issue. New York has the eighth highest ATV fatality rate in the country.”
Later that day, according to their report for the shift, officers from the five teams working encountered a large group of riders in the Setauket Woods who managed to evade officers, and “a large side-by-side who escaped by plowing through a barricade.
They impounded a quad being ridden by a 13-year-old in the woods off Route 112 in Port Jefferson Station, and then again impunded an ATV in the woods off of Weeks Avenue in Manorville. The rider in that case had an active warrant for vehicle and traffic violations, and was taken to the Suffolk County Jail.
Summonses were also given to riders in the woods off Mill Road in Yaphank and Weeks Road in Manorville.
By the end of the day, they’d brought the year’s total impounds to 72, with 155 summonses issued.
Officers ask the public to report illegal ATV use in the Pine Barrens to 1-877-BARRENS.