ATV riders on south Mississippi creeks run afoul of law

Published 9:15 pm Wednesday, June 28, 2006

After Patrick Gibson bought his dream property on Topisaw Creek a few months ago, he made an unpleasant discovery: Four-wheelers use the stream as a thoroughfare.

“It’s aggravating, and it’s terrible for the fisheries,” Gibson said.

It’s also illegal, on several counts.

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“They’re trespassing,” said Capt. Jamie Cummins of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks’ Brookhaven district office. “A public waterway entitles a civilian to float it and to wade it as long as they stay within the water…. It does not include ATVs.”

According to the state public waterways law, “any person who uses a motorized vehicle in the bed of a public waterway without the written permission of the landowner may be punished.”

Also, “disturbance of the bed or banks … is prohibited,” according to the “Mississippi Streamside Landowner’s Handbook” published by the state Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

The Topisaw is one of several southwest Mississippi streams whose shallow, sandy beds attract ATV riders.

“I’ve talked to just hundreds of them over the years,” said Jimmy Jones of Franklin County, whose house overlooks the Homochitto River. “Used to be, they’d be fairly respectful if you’d talk to them. Now they don’t show any respect.”

Gibson’s problems start 1-1/2 miles upstream at Turnpike Bridge. That’s where four-wheelers gather on weekends, despite piles of dirt heaped up beside the bridge by county supervisors.

The machines — many of them racing models, improperly carrying passengers — take off down the gravel bars, frequently crossing the shallow stream. Gibson has also noticed tracks indicating a four-wheel drive truck has been driving the creek along with the ATVs.

Sediment stirred up by tires suffocates fish eggs as well as the insect eggs and larvae that fish eat, according to a brochure on responsible ATV riding distributed by the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.

“Tires grind gravel and sand stream-bottoms, crushing juvenile fish and invertebrates,” the brochure says.

Gibson sees the problem firsthand. His wife Sherri was swimming in the Topisaw one day when its normally clear water turned cloudy.

“She said, ‘What’s wrong with the water?’” Gibson said. “I said, ‘It’s the four-wheelers.’ She couldn’t believe it.”

Even when there are no four-wheelers upstream, Gibson has noticed a layer of silt that covers everything in the water.

“It’s a clear river,” said Gibson, a lifelong outdoorsman. “The fish and the tadpoles and the softshell turtles — it’s like an aquarium. On the weekend when you’ve got 30 four-wheelers for a mile and a half, that’s going to put an end to that. That’s going to kill it.”

Alcohol is another problem often associated with ATV riding on creeks. Gibson recalls seeing a group of four-wheelers pull up to his property line on the Topisaw.

“A couple of them came across the line and tore up my sandbar with their little racing four-wheelers,” he said, estimating the riders’ ages at 18 to 20.

Some were drinking beer, and when they finished, they filled the cans with water and tossed them in the creek — violating underage drinking and antilitter laws in one fell swoop.

Jones has encountered riders even younger. He recalled a boy around 17 with a girl about 13 on back with an ice chest full of beer.

Misdemeanors like that can lead to more serious charges, said Andrew Whitehurst, state scenic streams coordinator. “If they’re carrying crystal meth on the stream, they could get searched, and the stream riding could turn into a felony.”

Even more serious are wrecks. Topisaw riders often zoom down the creek, across property on the east side to C.D. Rayborn Road and back north to Turnpike Bridge, which means they’re riding on public roads.

That’s illegal, and dangerous. In 2001, a 12-year-old boy was killed and another boy seriously injured when a pickup truck collided with their four-wheeler at Turnpike Bridge.

Gibson is considering contacting other Topisaw landowners in hopes of forming an association. He has also contacted the Pike County Sheriff’s Department and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

“It messes up my property and it’s flat against the law,” he said. He has erected “no trespassing signs,” but they were soon stolen.

Even when riders don’t come on his property, the noise is obnoxious. “It echoes. You can’t get away from it,” Gibson said.

“I’m looking forward to the wintertime so they’ll stop.”

Jones’ house looks down on a 20-acre Homochitto sandbar he owns. “It’s nothing to have 10 to 15 four wheelers down there,” he said. “It just echoes back up into my home.”

Jones is talking to local legislators in hopes of strengthening laws against ATV river-riders. For instance, he’d like to see identification numbers required on ATVs so landowners can know who to file charges against.

“It’s a problem that is going to have to be addressed at some point,” Jones said. “I just don’t know how it’s going to be addressed.”

Gibson is determined to see it stop on Topisaw.

“I’m going to put an end to it,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to give up the property of a lifetime. … I’m in the right. I just shouldn’t have to put up with it.”