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Thousands show up to support ATV access in state forests
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More than 2,000 people packed a hockey arena in Warroad to oppose a plan by the Department of Natural Resources to limit access for all-terrain vehicales in the Beltrami Island State Forest in northwest Minnesota. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
More than 2,000 people packed a hockey arena in Warroad Thursday night, to discuss the fate of the Beltrami Island State Forest in northwest Minnesota. They're against a proposal by the Department of Natural Resources to limit where all-terrain vehicles can travel. Opponents say the plan would prevent them from driving ATVs on trails they've used for decades. Supporters say it's necessary to protect sensitive public lands.

Warroad, Minn. — DNR officials say Thursday night's crowd probably set an attendance record for any DNR-sponsored forum. Such interest in ATV trails isn't surprising in northwest Minnesota. The region is home to two manufacturers of ATVs, Polaris Industries in Roseau and Arctic Cat in Thief River Falls. Polaris brought in busloads of employees to voice opposition to the DNR trails plan.

"We appreciate all the effort the DNR has put into this," said Bennett Morgan, vice president and general manager of Polaris' ATV division. "But they haven't involved the local residents at all in the process, until tonight. And I think we're too far along in the process before you've actually asked for input from the people that actually use the forest," he said to applause from the audience.

The process began in 2003, when the Legislature directed the DNR to inventory all roads and trails in Minnesota's 54 state forests. Now, ATVs can travel almost anywhere in state forests. The goal is to make all trails off limits to ATVs, unless they're posted open.

In the Beltrami Island State Forest, the DNR inventoried more than 1,100 miles of existing roads and trails. Of those, the DNR proposes allowing ATVs on 514 miles of trail. Only 54 miles are set aside specifically for ATVs.

Many locals say that's not enough. Some Warroad High School students were at the meeting, selling t-shirts that read, "Northern Minnesotans Against DNR Land Barons." One of those students, Patrick Thompson, says the DNR's plan would make it tough to get to some parts of the woods.

"We don't really agree with it because we can't get places that we usually like to hunt," Thompson said. "My grandpa is 80 years old, and he won't be able to hunt this year because he can't get around too good... Go out on an ATV and he'd be able to deer hunt and grouse hunt."

The DNR's trails proposal has stirred lots of emotions in northwest Minnesota. Roseau Mayor Jeff Pelowski says many people spend lots of time in the state forest.

"People have used the forest for years and years and years, and generations. (They are) good stewards of it," Pelowski said. "And then to all of a sudden see a plan that's going to deny access, or restrict access in certain areas, is very disturbing to a lot of people."

The whole forest reclassification process was driven by evidence of environmental abuse in some state forests.

Some environmental groups support much of the DNR's plan. Matt Norton with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy says it does a good job of keeping vehicles away from sensitive wetlands. But Norton says the plan fails to protect the interests of non-motorized forest users.

"It's very difficult to find upland areas on this state forest, where hunters who would like to get away from ATVs or hikers who would like to get away from ATVs, or birdwatchers, or campers, can go and be any reasonable distance from the nearest ATV trail," Norton said.

For the DNR, trail designation is a balancing act. Assistant DNR Commissioner Brad Moore says the DNR needs to try a new approach.

"Clearly what we've learned in the last few weeks and months is the process needs to be different for some of these northern forests," Moore said. "People feel, both the environmental community and the motorized community, that too much is done before they have a say. So I think they're viewing the draft plans as being a done deal. They're not ... but we need to figure out a way to bring them earlier into the process as we shape a draft plan."

Initially, the public comment period for the Beltrami Island State Forest was to end at the end of this month. The DNR has decided to accept public comments until sometime this summer.

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