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Stiffer fines suggested for ATV violators
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ATVs and other off-road vehicles are popular in Minnesota, which has more than 230,000 registered ATVs. (MPR file photo)
Fines for offenses involving all-terrain vehicles have been in effect for little more than a year, but environmentalists say there are already signs that the penalties aren't a deterrent for reckless drivers. A coalition of nine environmental groups says it will ask lawmakers this session to substantially raise fines for ATV and other off-highway vehicle driving violations, and to seize vehicles from repeat offenders.

St. Paul, Minn. — The coalition includes groups like the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and the Izaak Walton League. The League of Women Voters also backs the proposed legislation.

Sean Wherley with Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness says the coalition decided to bring the ATV issue back to the Legislature after reviewing state statistics that showed a big increase in off-highway violations. During a recent 12-month period, conservation officers handed out more than 3,100 tickets.

"What's revealing about those figures is that 86 percent of them were committed by adults," says Wherley. "It counters the age-old argument that these are only irresponsible youth who are tearing up our hunting grounds and our fishing streams -- and it's time we rein in those lawbreakers."

Wherley thinks stiffer fines would help. His group proposes raising the fee on a first-offense from $100 to $200. Second and third violations would increase substantially, too. The group also wants to add ATV tickets to a driver's motor vehicle record, a move that would likely affect the driver's insurance rates.

But repeat offenders would feel the most pain in their pocketbooks. Under the proposal, flagrant violators would have their ATVs seized and sold.

Gene Larimore, a member of the Jack Pine Coalition, says the plan may sound harsh, but it's fair.

(ATV critics) are going to do whatever they need to do to keep ATVs out of public lands. They will stop at nothing and they will say anything to make that a reality.
- Dave Hendricks, ATV Association of Minnesota

"Some people just have to be separated from their vehicle," says Larimore. "If you get arrested three times in one day, I think the time has come when the authorities simply have to take the machine away. You can't tolerate that. That is criminal behavior."

Larimore says he's seen the destruction caused by ATVs first-hand. He owns a cabin near the Foothills State Forest in north central Minnesota. The area has been a popular off-road vehicle site.

"The damage was astonishing. Huge ruts made by ATVs, hills absolutely trashed by 4x4 trucks, and just generally an aura of destruction," says Larimore. "The understory of the forest is ... gone. So that's kind of how I got my consciousness raised."

But the All Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota, also known as ATVAM, doesn't think environmental groups are being fair at all.

"We understand that there are things that need to be fixed, no doubt about it," says ATVAM's president, Dave Hendricks. "But you gotta fix 'em right and they've gotta be on the right side."

ATVAM opposes the new fines. Hendricks says the problem isn't bad drivers, it's a lack of access to trails. He says even if all ATV drivers obeyed the law, environmentalists would still be opposed to giving them more room to ride.

"Anti-access groups and this conglomerate of nine organizations -- they're going to do whatever they need to do to keep ATVs out of public lands," says Hendricks. "They will stop at nothing and they will say anything to make that a reality for their organizations."

Hendricks says his group does want to rein in ATV violators who are ruining the sport for others. ATVAM will ask lawmakers this session to require mandatory ATV training for all riders born after July 1, 1987. The group is also recommending training for riders who are cited for violations.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources enforces ATV regulations, and so far, the agency hasn't taken a position on the competing proposals. But the DNR is used to criticism when it comes to this issue. Environmentalists claim the agency isn't doing enough to protect state land, while angry ATV users complain there aren't enough trails.

Assistant Commissioner Brad Moore says even within his agency there are disagreements over how to handle the ATV issue. But he says it's definitely not an option for the DNR to ignore ATV users and other off-highway vehicles.

"The Legislature's made it very clear that this kind of recreation is appropriate on state forest land, and our job is to try to determine where to put those machines in an environmentally sound manner."

The popularity of ATVs has been growing steadily. Figures show that Minnesotans have bought roughly 15,000 new machines each year for the past five years. Currently, there are more than 230,000 registered ATVs in Minnesota.