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Bemidji, Minn. — Last year, the Legislature banned ATVs from driving in most wetlands in Minnesota's state forests. The law also applied to private property. That angered some people in northern Minnesota, especially in Koochiching County.
Much of the land in Koochiching County is desolate, spongy bog. Nearly half the county is considered wetlands. Last year's law turned many Koochiching County ATV riders into criminals, because they have to cross a wetland illegally to get to their homes and cabins.
State Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, has introduced a bill to change that. It would let someone drive an ATV across a public wetland to get to their property. That's a point most people agree on. But Hackbarth's bill goes even further, by taking away all wetland protections on private land.
"We're trying to say to people on private lands, if you own your own land, if you've got some wetlands, you can ride your ATV on there," said Hackbarth. "It's not a big deal."
Hackbarth's bill would also allow ATVs on peat bogs in state forests, and it would allow ATVs on other types of public wetlands when they're frozen.
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy says allowing ATVs on wetlands would reverse 25 years of policies designed to protect them. "What they're doing is essentially stripping away some protections that we got put in last year's bill for wetlands to protect them from ATV and truck traffic," said the organization's Matt Norton. "The bill that passed out of the House Environment Finance Committee undoes half of the bargain that was cut last year."
Norton says since ATVs have big tires and big engines, they can go anywhere. He says they can devastate wetlands. Rep. Hackbarth says environmentalists have overblown the problem. He says riding an ATV through a wetland doesn't destroy it.
"Mother Nature kind of heals itself in that regard in these wetlands, and the same thing is true of ATVs," said Hackbarth. "You could ride an ATV through some of these marshy areas, and, of course, you're going to leave an imprint, but it's not damaging the wetland."
Wetlands protection was only part of last year's landmark ATV law. The cornerstone was a plan to create a system of ATV trails in Minnesota state forests. In past years, ATVs were allowed on most any state trail. But now, the law will keep ATVs only on designated trails. The DNR is selecting which trails in 53 state forests are OK for ATVs.
That process is now underway, but not without criticism. A number of conservation groups in Minnesota say the trail designation process is flawed. They say the DNR underestimates the potential for ATVs to cause environmental damage. They say the agency is not taking into account the needs of non-motorized users, such as hikers, hunters, or birdwatchers.
Gene Larimore is with the Jack Pine Coalition, a citizens group in north central Minnesota. He says the DNR needs to consider the cost before they designate ATV trails. Larimore supports a bill this session that would force the DNR to create an enforcement and maintenance budget. "Enormous numbers of miles are being proposed," said Larimore. "They have no idea what it's going to cost to enforce them. None of us in our personal lives or professional lives do a project without a budget, without knowing how much it's going to cost. And that's exactly what they're proposing to do."
DNR officials admit they don't have a cost estimate yet, but they plan to by next January. Laurie Martinson, the DNR's Trails and Waterways Division director, says designating off-highway vehicle trails will actually make it easier for the DNR to keep track of ATVs in state forests.
"We believe that we have about 7,000 miles of informal trails right now," said Martinson. "What we're doing as we're going through this trail designation process is reducing the number of trails that are available and open to OHV use, thereby reducing our costs in the long term."
There's such an entrenched culture of going out and ripping up wetlands, driving through lakes and streams, just doing resource damage, that it really would be having the fox guard the henhouse to hand state dollars over to these groups...
So far, the DNR has completed draft plans for six state forests. Most of them are along Interstate Highway 35 between Duluth and the Twin Cities. The DNR would designate about 140 miles of ATV trails. But they'd ban ATV riders from more than 400 miles of existing trails.
Martinson says the process is time-consuming. But she says designating ATV trails will help reduce environmental damage and other problems associated with ATVs in state forests.
"We've got to get moving on the ground," she said. "We've got to make a difference on the ground as soon as we can. We've been operating in an unmanaged system now for a long time, and we've got a lot of catchup work to do."
There are several bills before lawmakers this session that would give the DNR some help. The proposals would create a system of volunteers using established ATV clubs. The clubs would be given state money to help the DNR monitor and maintain trails. DNR officials say a similar program has worked well in Wisconsin.
Matt Norton with the Center for Environmental Advocacy says it's bad policy. He says the state should be cautious about handing over money to groups like the ATV Association of Minnesota. He says in the past, ATVAM has promoted irresponsible riding. Norton points to an ATVAM membership recruitment campaign two years ago that used the unfortunate slogan "More Fun than a Bottomless Mud Bog."
"There's such an entrenched culture of going out and ripping up wetlands, driving through lakes and streams, just doing resource damage," Norton said, "that it really would be having the fox guard the henhouse to hand state dollars over to these groups, to do the monitoring and maintenance and enforcement of their own trails."
ATVAM officials dismiss the criticism as political hype. Dustin Young, the group's president, says one of their main goals is to promote safety and responsible riding.
"I think that they're just blowing smoke, to be quite honest," said Young. "They don't like the fact that we're proving that ATV users and owners can be responsible. They want us to look irresponsible. And so anything that we do legislatively to prove differently, they are against, because it doesn't serve their cause."
A lot of people worked hard last year on the ATV issue. Many thought lawmakers had reached a workable compromise. Now they're gearing up for a new fight over some of the same old issues.
Meanwhile, the DNR says it will have designated ATV trails in six state forests as early as this summer. The agency expects to have draft plans completed for another half dozen forests by the end of the year.