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ATV restrictions rolled back in state parks bill
Larger view
Wetland damage in the Spider Lake recreational area. The bill passed by lawmakers to keep state parks open included a provision to roll back restrictions on ATV riding in northern Minnesota forests. (Photo courtesy of Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation)
The Minnesota Legislature passed a $686 million dollar funding bill that averts a state park shutdown over the busy holiday weekend. But a little-noticed provision was tucked into that bill, which loosens restrictions on riding all-terrain vehicles in state forests north of Highway 2. Environmentalists are angry with the move.

Bemidji, Minn. — Environmentalists see the ATV provision as a huge defeat. The bill rolls back a 2003 ATV compromise reached between Gov. Pawlenty, environmentalists and off-highway vehicle riders.

That compromise established a plan where the DNR would evaluate and reclassify each state forest and decide where ATV's can and can't go. It meant that all state forest trails would eventually be closed unless posted open.

The Legislature's new bill keeps trails in state forests north of Highway 2 open unless posted closed. Highway 2 crosses Minnesota from Duluth to East Grand Forks. Susan Solterman, policy director for Audubon Minnesota, says the bill is bad news for people who want a quiet forest experience.

You could be walking down a trail with your 5 or 6 year- old kid, birdwatching, and around the corner could come an ATV.
- Susan Solterman, Audubon Minnesota

"You could be walking down a trail with your 5 or 6 year- old kid, birdwatching, and around the corner could come an ATV," Solterman says. "It doesn't matter if that trail is a foot and a half wide or three feet wide, if the trail isn't posted closed, a motorized vehicle could be on it."

A number of northern Minnesota lawmakers pushed for the measure. They say many of the northern state forests are in sparsely populated areas where trail restrictions aren't necessary.

Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, opposed the ATV provision and says she's angry about the way it was passed. Ruud says the measure was slipped in by last-minute political maneuvering, with no input from lawmakers.

Ruud says she's seen ATVs cause damage in state forests in her district. Ruud says the forests deserve more protection.

"We have 75 percent of our state forests north of Highway 2, and I think we have over four million acres of state forest. And this portion of the bill allows ATVs to free ride in those state forests," says Ruud.

Ruud says the new law chops the state in two, and creates a duel standard that will be difficult to enforce.

"How do you hold riders accountable when we have two different standards?" she asks.

Off-highway vehicle groups have long supported keeping trails open in state forests. Dave Hendricks, president of the All-Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota, says ATV riders will be happy with the north of highway 2 provision. He says most ATV users ride safely and responsibly.

"It's not a win-lose situation. With our counterparts and other shareholders, we still put the proverbial fig leaf out there to work with user groups and other people that use the forest," says Hendricks. "We want to keep that dialogue going, and we want to do the right thing as far as trails, education and enforcement."

Hendricks says ATV groups didn't get all they wanted from the Legislature. A provision that would have created a system of trail ambassadors was voted down. He says the bill also lacked money for ATV education programs.