Every so often a proposal comes forward that is so ludicrous and beyond the realm of logical deduction within the paradigm of society that it is easy to conclude that it must be some sort of April Fool’s joke — or, perhaps more appropriate at this season, a Hallowe’en nightmare. Such is the existing application to the Government by a local entrepreneur to operate “ecotours” in our western parks using all-terrain vehicles.
There are three fundamental reasons why I perceive this to be the case:
1, It would be setting an extremely dangerous precedent given the primary purpose of our Parks and Nature Reserves system as enshrined in the National Parks Act of 1986. The whole purpose of our parks system was to set aside open spaces free of commercial development for the passive recreational enjoyment of locals and tourists in a natural setting. A chance to get away from our rapidly urbanising landscape and our increasingly dangerous and noisy roads.
Some of our parks are already facing a chronic threat of illegal use by motorised “scramble” bikes that tear up the trails, endanger pedestrians, scare away wildlife and create noise pollution. How can our park rangers and police hope to control that if we give legislative approval for even larger and noisier four-wheeled vehicles, which would do even more damage to the trails?
I have looked at the map of the proposed route and, apart from the tarmacked railway trail, which is also supposed to be kept free of motor traffic, all the proposed routes within Scaur Hill Park and Hog Bay Park are in fact unpaved nature trails, only some of which are wide enough to be used when occasion requires by parks maintenance vehicles or by farm tractors and trucks in those cases where farm fields are leased within the parks.
Those unpaved tracks make up approximately one fifth of the total route proposed and most are exceptionally steep, which would make them even more prone to erosion. The limestone rock in Somerset is especially soft. Some may recall that when Coney Island was used for dirt-bike racing before the move to Southside, the erosion ruts created were up to 4ft deep and 15ft wide. The noise pollution from Southside today on race days can be heard two miles away. I am advised that the particular model of ATV proposed for these tours is capable of doing up to 40mph and is as noisy as a leaf blower.
2, ATVs are the terrestrial equivalent of jet-skis. Like jet-skis, they have nothing whatever to do with enjoying Bermuda’s natural wonders, but everything to do with getting a high from speeding or manoeuvring over rough terrain. Perhaps the relatively vast area of our inshore waters allows a niche for jet-skis, although many question even that, but imagine allowing their terrestrial equivalent in our minuscule parks?
The proposers have tried to assure us that their speed limit will be set at 10mph and that they are, after all, to be used for ecotours. But is this not the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to kill a fly? Surely golf carts would be more genteel.
The point I want to make here is that none of our parks are large enough to need motorised vehicles for access, and using such vehicles would only make them seem smaller. Does anyone really obey the speed limit on Bermuda? Would someone be delegated to walk in front of the ATVs with a red flag like when the steam locomotives first came into operation in England during the industrial revolution?
All-terrain vehicles, by their very nature, were developed for recreational speed sport in an off-road environment. Their erosion potential is even greater than dirt bikes. Any tourists naive enough to sign up for a Bermuda tour on them are going to have the expectation that they will be able to operate them in the same way as jet-skis — and therein lies the real problem.
3, The huge difference between Bermuda and the continents, where these machines were developed, is that we are a minuscule oceanic island and simply do not have the luxury of vast areas of open land where it is still possible to find derelict strip mines or back-beach dune areas remote from habitation, where groups of these vehicles can joyride and rip up the ground to their hearts content without offending the neighbours.
This is one point that the first chief executive of the Bermuda Tourism Authority, an American, failed to consider when he and his staff tried to diversify our tourism offerings by encouraging local entrepreneurs to provide all kinds of commercialised new adventure sports in our park areas.
Everything from zip lines for Horseshoe Bay Park to the present proposal seem to have been encouraged without thought given to the actual amount of space available. Even a relatively small recreational park in America or Canada may have an area of hundreds, or even thousands, of hectares — enough to accommodate a car park for hundreds of vehicles, and a service centre offering a restaurant, a fairground and several intensive recreational sport facilities while taking only a fractional bite out of the total natural open space available.
On the other hand, our largest park on Bermuda — Horseshoe Bay and Warwick Long Bay — is only 40 hectares. This is barely large enough to serve the passive recreational needs of our own population, let alone the busloads of cruise ship tourists that visit there through the summer. If we really tried to provide all the parking, catering, sporting and beach services that our visitors may wish for, a good third of our parks would have to be sacrificed for service infrastructure alone.
Oceanic island Bermuda is minuscule in land area and already, perhaps, the most densely populated, self-governing, geopolitical unit in the world. We must accept, therefore, that we have limited options in our attempt to revive tourism, and ATVs in our parks is certainly not one of them.
This issue is too important to allow it to become politicised. Nevertheless, the present Progressive Labour Party government would win many credit points by rejecting out of hand an inane proposal that was first brought forward under the One Bermuda Alliance.
•David B. Wingate DSc, who was part of the expedition that rediscovered the Bermuda petrel (cahow) in 1951, is the retired former government conservation officer, and a founding member of the Bermuda Audubon Society and the Bermuda National Trust