A bill is heading to Gov. Ventura that restricts all-terrain vehicle use in some state forests. Thursday, legislators approved a ban on cross-country ATV travel on some state land. That means ATV riders can't go off established trails and roadways. But there are other changes ahead for Minnesotans who ride all-terrain vehicles.
Officials with the Department of Natural Resources say they'll no longer sanction so-called "challenge areas" in state forests. It could put an end to courses designed for hill climbing or mud running. Some environmentalists say more restrictions are needed. But lawmakers may wait until next year to decide how best to further regulate ATVs.
Brian Devries has a big stake in how lawmakers decide to regulate ATV use. Devries owns an ATV resort on the edge of Itasca State Park. It's called Freedom Ridge. The resort started out small four years ago. But Devries says interest in ATVs has exploded. This spring he'll construct a 40-room motel.
"We started out with four ATVs, and now we're up to 24 and we're still running out," says Devries. "We logged 37,000 miles on the trails last year."
Devries says Freedom Ridge may be the only resort of its kind in Minnesota. It includes an ATV obstacle course on private land. There are also 60 miles of looped trails, most of which are in the Paul Bunyan State Forest. Devries maintains and patrols the trails on public lands. The Department of Natural Resources even lets him put up trail signs. He says his guests know the rules, so environmental damage hasn't been a problem like it has in other parts of the state.
Devries says he thinks state lawmakers and the DNR have reacted too slowly to the explosion of ATV popularity.
"They seem to be one step behind, and not strategizing ahead and not working enough with the clubs," says Devries. "I'd like to see them focus more of those funding dollars toward education, because I think that's the solution to the problem."
The number of registered ATVs in Minnesota has tripled the past decade. This year, about 150,000 are licensed. In some places, the machines are destroying vegetation and causing erosion in state forests. The damage is especially severe in the challenge course areas of state forests. Dennis Asmussen is director of the DNR Trails and Waterways division. He says the state will no longer allow such activities.
"We aren't interested in hosting challenge areas in the state forests," he says. "We think that is incompatible with some of the other purposes for which forests are set aside."
The Legislature has proposed a ban on cross-country travel in state forests. The plan provides $1.2 million to develop more ATV trails and hire three more enforcement officers.
There were other more restrictive plans on the table. But instead, lawmakers agreed to create a task force to study the issue for a year. Asmussen says environmental leaders and ATV association representatives agreed.
"This will allow us to have the kind of discussion that I think has never really occurred," he says. "And there really is some accommodation and generosity being shown on both sides now. We've seen off-road interest groups talking to Sierra Club and Audubon and others. So these are good signs."
Some environmentalists are still frustrated. Jim Edsel is a member of Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation and a grassroots group called the Jackpine Coalition.
"They should go farther," Edsel argues. "These are our resources."
Edsel says he's disgusted that the DNR ever allowed the so-called challenge areas, particularly the one located at Spider Lake Recreation Area in north central Minnesota. He says the DNR should be doing Environmental Assessment Worksheets on all projects and trails, before they're built. The DNR has since agreed to do an environmental review. Edsel, a senior biology major at Bemidji State University, says he's doing one of his own.
"I got to the point where I don't trust them anymore, so a citizen-initiated EAW just seemed real good, kind of as a watchdog system, to kind of compare our notes and find out what we both get," he says.
Throughout the summer, the task force will evaluate existing ATV damage in state forests. Members will also propose new ways to manage state lands that allows for ATV use, without environmental damage. The Legislature will consider the recommendations in January.More Information