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Legalizing ATVs to Pit Beer & Kalashnikovs Against White Wine & Tree-Hugging

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A new battle in the culture wars breaks out in Vermont.

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Yahoos of the non-search-engine variety are heading for the wilderness in their All-Terrain Vehicles.

The influx of flashy, 4-wheel drive vehicles with roaring engines, throaty exhaust, and headlights bright enough for an operating room will impinge on Smokey the Bear's domain -- a move sure to drive environmentalists nuts.

Cash-strapped states hope the ATV invasion will be a new source of tourist dollars during the economic downturn. The furry little creatures will just have to live with the noise year-round, because ATVs in warm weather will be followed by snow machines in winter. Living on a lake won't save you in summer, when jet skis are often thicker than mosquitoes.

Think of the swarming ATVs as the democratization of nature, long the preserve of the white-wine-and-Birkenstocks set. Still, the ATV invasion could open a new front in the culture wars.

There were an estimated 9.5 million ATVs in use nationwide in 2007, or nearly double the 4.8 million estimated to be chewing up nature in 2001, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates. Polaris Industries (PII) is perhaps the best know manufacturer of off-road vehicles. It competes with Arctic Cat (ACAT), Kawasaki Heavy Industries, and Honda (HMC).

The aptly named Hatfield-McCoy system in West Virginia is one of the nation's largest systems of ATV trails and generated about $7.7 million for lodging, permits, food, fuel, and repairs in 2005, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Vermont -- home to maple syrup and everything politically correct -- has banned ATVs from public land, but the state's Natural Resources Agency proposed lifting the ban in an effort to attract a new tourist market, and it may consider reviewing proposals for special ATV trails. If so, can a secession movement be far behind? Vermont could declare itself the Luddite capital of the world and a (blissfully) ATV-free zone.

Vermont may be bowing to the inevitable because some ATV riders have routinely ignored the rules and followed their muse across hill and dale -- tearing up every hill and dale in their wake.

In Michigan, where unemployment hit about 15.4% in June, despite Uncle Sam's efforts to rescue General Motors and Chrysler, 36 northern counties now permit ATVs to be driven on the sides of secondary roads. The theory: This makes it easier for ATV enthusiasts to get to trails and riders will spend more money along the way.

A tricked-out ATV can cost as much as $10,000. The stylish rider can add brush guards, hand guards, plows, and trailers suitable for hauling beer and Kalashnikovs to the mountaintop.

In the stampede to scoop up new tourist dollars, states may be overlooking the obvious appeal of mixing nature with the internal combustion engine to the troglodytes everyone loves to hate -- trial attorneys. This could be a gold mine for personal-injury lawsuits.

No matter how rigid the state's permitting process, no matter how many "drive like a fool at your own risk" disclaimers are signed and nailed to trees along the ATV trails, there's sure to be a flurry of lawsuits.

Think of the most outrageous lawsuit you've ever read about and compare it to a claim like this: "The state never told me, an innocent ATV rider, that I shouldn't drive my machine off a 500-foot cliff and through swamps infested with alligators. Or that studded tires aren't suitable for climbing trees."

But cheer up -- at least somebody's cash register will be ringing.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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