The Long Pond Greenbelt system of coastal plain ponds, surrounded by more than 900 acres of preserved woods just east of the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, is cyclical in nature.
The ponds, which are fed by rainwater, rise and fall with the precipitation, and as they rise and fall, different seeds of native plants are exposed to the air each year, depending on the water level, feeding a constantly changing, unique ecosystem.
What’s also cyclical in nature in the Greenbelt is a scourge of dirt bikes and ATVs, which scour out the trails, forming bumpy moguls that make some of the paths unwalkable. Off-road vehicle owners have lately begun ripping up barricades meant to keep motorized traffic off the trails and the bed of the old Sag Harbor rail spur that runs through the Greenbelt.
The off-roader situation has gotten so bad this spring, says Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt President Dai Dayton, that ATV users have actually taken to driving around the edges of the ponds, whose water levels have been low this past winter and early spring.
“We had a horrible problem 15 years ago and we worked hard to resolve it,” said Ms. Dayton on a recent walk through the preserve. “It’s just a nightmare. This winter they were ringing the ponds, the water was so low.”
Ms. Dayton says she’s especially concerned for the Greenbelt’s native turtles.
“Turtles bury their eggs in sandy spots like the trails and the spur,” she said. “If the bikes are crushing them, it’s underground. The turtles have enough to contend with.”
The Long Pond Greenbelt isn’t the only area of Southampton that is seeing a bad case of off-road vehicles these days. Several trails in North Sea are also being ruined by ATVs, says Susan Colledge of the Southampton Trails Preservation Society.
Ms. Colledge said paths surrounding Great Hill and Barrel Hill have become impassible over the past three years.
“When it snows, it’s the perfect time to see where the tracks are coming from,” she says. “But, according to the powers that be, we could take all the pictures we want and send all the letters we want, they say there’s nothing we can do about it until we catch them in the act.”
Ms. Colledge said one of her favorite hikes around Split Rock, a glacial erratic boulder deposited at the end of the last ice age 18,000 years ago, was marred last year when she brought a group of hikers to the landmark rock, only to find it was covered in graffiti.
“For years, my mother and grandmother and everybody would go there for lunch and come home,” she said. “It wasn’t until last year, when I led a hike there, that I was coming through in all my innocence, and it was covered in graffiti.”
“How many 10,000 years of nothing, and then there’s graffiti all over it?” she said. She added that she thinks dirt bikers may have been responsible, since they frequently use that trail.
“They were also building fires in the space between the split, bringing in pine kindling from the woods,” she said. “If this goes up in flames, there are houses nearby and there are absolutely no hydrants.”
Ms. Colledge said she’s spoken with the police and other town representatives, who have told her there’s nothing they can do unless they catch the off-roaders in the act.
“It’s ridiculous,” she said.
Ms. Dayton has heard the same answer from law enforcement, but she’s still planning to strike back. She’s been in discussions with the Pine Barrens Commission about running a sting operation in the Greenbelt similar to operations conducted in the Pine Barrens, where the police blanket the woods on days that are known to be favorites of dirt bikers, confiscating their bikes and fining them.
“On Long Island, there is no legal place to ride motorbikes. You can only ride on private property with the written permission of the homeowner in your pocket,” said Ms. Dayton. “Dealerships are supposed to have signs that say ‘you can buy this but you can’t ride it anywhere.'”
She said the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt used to post volunteers at the entrances to the preserve, who handed out pamphlets to dirt bikers as they entered the woods. But the police advise the public against confronting bikers in the woods.
Larry Hines of the Pine Barrens Commission has been meeting with the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt to come up with a plan to police the woods.
“We rely a lot on the public, but we do not want the public to get personally involved,” he said. “They’re good eyes and ears in protecting the central Pine Barrens, and properties like the Long Pond Greenbelt. They’re very caring and very professional. They want to do their best to try to safeguard these properties. We told them we’re always available to work with them.”
Mr. Hines said people who encounter dirt bikers in the woods should contact the Southampton Town Police.
Mr. Hines said his law enforcement council in the Pine Barrens is comprised of 26 public safety and law enforcement agencies, who help each other with problems in the woods.
“It’s all the law enforcement agencies basically all working together to try to keep an eye on these properties,” he said. “Public funds went into purchasing these properties. If one particular agency is having a problem in a certain area, we will put a sting together to try to apprehend the violators, letting them know this won’t be tolerated. ATVs and dirt bikes do a lot of environmental damage, tearing up the trails and hurting vegetation.”
Mr. Hines said the task force would try to determine when the ATVs are using the woods, and put a sting together during those hours. He said once a rider is caught, the vehicle is confiscated and the rider needs to pay a redemption fee to get it back.
“Then word gets out,” he said. “It sends a message this won’t be tolerated.”
Ms. Dayton said she’s hopeful a sting will discourage dirt bikers, but, ideally, she thinks the Greenbelt needs a ranger to protect lands that Suffolk County, Southampton Town and The Nature Conservancy spent millions of dollars preserving.
“Law enforcement is thinly staffed,” she said, “but there should be someone here.”
Ms. Colledge said she’d be interested in seeing if the Pine Barrens commission could help her neighborhood too.
“I would be glad to join in with her, but we’re two distinct areas and I don’t know whether we would have the logistics to do it,” she said. “In my area here, there are probably less than half a dozen people, a few scallywags, doing the damage. If they came afternoons and weekends, they would catch them. I’m sure they would educate them, more than anything else.”
Ms. Dayton also has another solution in mind. Most of the off-road vehicles come into the Greenbelt near the high tension wires behind an old dumping ground on the Sag Harbor Turnpike, where Sag Harbor Village dumps their leaves. The property is outside the village boundaries but is owned by the village. It is still full of debris and telltale ATV moguls and tire tracks.
“This should really be part of the Greenbelt,” she said, as she hiked quickly through the garbage dump on a sunny morning last week. “If people want to donate it to the Greenbelt, I have no problem cleaning it up.”