WEST GREENWICH, R.I. — Within the Big River Management Area, the use of motorized vehicles is restricted, according to the area’s policies. But last month, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) allowed Rhody Rovers MC to host an enduro motorcycle race at the largest publicly owned land parcel in the state.
DEM issues these permits for restricted activities “on a limited basis and with conditions,” according to Michael Healey, the agency’s chief public affairs officer. Special-use permits are free unless the event requires a police detail. Rhody Rovers did not need a detail for its June 19 race, according to DEM.
In an email to ecoRI News, Healey wrote DEM “allows special uses as a way to give the public access to our properties in a way that can be managed.” He noted Rhody Rovers was required to clean up after the event.
Rhody Rovers was responsible for “returning the location back to its prior condition” and “removal and disposal of trash before leaving the area each day.” It would be billed for any damage the group caused, according to the DEM-issued special permit.
Healey said the motorcycle group, which has been around since 1947, has worked with DEM to use and clean up state lands in the past.
“Rhody Rovers have been an exemplary partner at Big River,” he wrote. “We estimate that Rhody Rovers clear roughly 60 to 70 miles of trails every year at Big River. These are trails that many other recreational users of Big River, such as hikers, enjoy.”
Healey noted DEM manages 90,000 acres of land statewide but only has six full-time employees dedicated to maintenance. “It would be impossible for us to approach fulfilling our stewardship goals without partners such as Rhody Rovers,” he wrote.
Pete Tanner, a member of the Rhody Rovers, said there is a lengthy permitting process to be able to use the land and that the group must show proof of a “multimillion dollar” insurance policy to get approval.
Rhody Rovers has already been approved for two more racing events at Big River — July 24 and Oct. 15.
Margaret Parsons, whose property borders the management area, said she was shocked to see the motorcycles riding through the trails on Father’s Day.
She was in her back yard and started to hear noises, so she ventured onto the trails and saw the race taking place. Thinking that motorized vehicles weren’t allowed in the area, she had her husband called the police, who let her know the event was permitted. As she walked through the woods, she took pictures of the racers as they passed by her.
“The trails are narrow. It just doesn’t seem right to me that people should be speeding on those trails where there are people walking dogs and hiking,” Parsons said.
John Halloran, who lives just over the border in Killingly, Conn., has been hiking the trails in Big River for the past 10 years and said he also worries about the safety of motorcycles moving quickly through the area.
“You hear a sound, but you don’t necessarily know immediately where the sound is coming from, what direction, and since the trails are pretty tight, it’s not always easy to step off into open space, especially with people that ride mountain bikes,” Halloran said.
Tanner said his motorcycle group posts flyers on trail heads and in parking lots at least a week in advance of their races so other Big River users can seek alternate routes.
He said anyone who is concerned about motorcycles used on the trails is “misinformed.” We’ve been doing it for years,” said Tanner, noting the group commits to cleaning up and maintaining the trails they use beyond DEM requirements outlined in the permits.
“More people benefit from us being out there than our user group because there’s a lot of hikers and bicycle people,” he said.
The Big River Management Area consists of about 8,600 acres of open space, and its borders extend through portions of West Greenwich, East Greenwich, Coventry, and Exeter.
Largely undeveloped, the land was originally condemned for water supply purposes and is owned by the Rhode Island Water Resources Board.
Some 200 single-family homes on the property were taken by eminent domain beginning in the mid-1960s. The Water Resources Board now maintains leases on 39 residential properties, three commercial properties, and the state-owned portion of the Maple Root Corporation, a mobile home park.
In 1993, the General Assembly passed legislation declaring the Big River Management Area as open space, to be utilized and enjoyed by the public.
“To this end, several civic groups engage in activities ranging from sports, hiking, canoeing, military training and other recreational activities,” according to the Big River Management Area Policies enacted in 1997.
Hopkins Hill Sand & Stone, which blasts and mines next to the Big River Management Area, has been operating illegally since fall 2004. DEM has fined the company, but the quarry is still operating illegally and polluting the nearby conservation area while its appeal makes its way through the courts.