Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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Debate continues over ATV access in state forests

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DNR enforcement officer Jeff Bircham holds a "no ATV" sign that's supposed to keep ATVers out of an environmentally sensitive area near the Warroad River in Beltrami Island State Forest. Bircham found the sign thrown in the woods near the trail. He says vandals frequently remove the sign and drive down the trail illegally. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
During the last legislative session, Minnesota lawmakers made a controversial change to laws regulating all-terrain vehicles on state land. The new rule divides the state into two. People riding ATVs in state forests south of Highway 2 are confined to trails designated for their sport.

But in state forests north of Highway 2, which includes the northern quarter of the state, all trails are open to ATVs, except those posted closed. That's good news for ATV enthusiasts in northern Minnesota. But some people say the new law makes northern forests vulnerable to environmental damage.

Beltrami Island State Forest, Minn. — Beltrami Island State Forest in northwestern Minnesota includes nearly 700,000 acres of mostly wetlands. On the ground that's dry, there are hundreds of miles of trails. They've been used for decades by hunters, trappers, hikers and berry pickers. In the past few years, they've been increasingly used by ATVers. That worries Warroad resident Jeff Siverhus.

Siverhus is walking down a trail that shows clear signs of ATV use. The machines have left ruts on the trail and there are signs of erosion. On a forested hillside, a web of rogue trails snakes off the main path.

"You can see how we've forked off here," said Siverhus. "And you've got a trail going here, one there, one just a few feet down the hill."

Siverhus says the new trails were made by ATVs. He says it's happening more and more, and it's cutting up the forest.

"This is the proliferation of the trails," said Siverhus, pointing. "In this area here ... I guess it's my example of trashing the place. I'm in the middle of what I'd consider the woods, yet I look around me and I'm seeing trails everywhere."

There's nothing illegal about using these trails. Even the experts have a hard time saying what's an established trail and what's not. Because Beltrami Island State Forest is north of Highway 2, riders can go on most any trail, unless there's a sign telling them they can't. Siverhus says that's bad land management.

"How could the DNR possibly manage useage on these trails?" asks Siverhus. "How could you possibly sign all of this to close a trail for the erosion that we saw back there, to take care of all the branches? What's needed is corridors that can handle the traffic. And the current legislative rules just don't do that. They do not even come close."

To understand the ATV issue, you have to go back to 2003. That's when the state Legislature ordered the DNR to inventory all of the roads and trails in Minnesota's 54 state forests.

The intent of the law was to limit environmental damage. It meant that all forest trails would be closed to ATVs and other off-highway vehicles, except for trails the DNR posted with signs declaring them open to motorized use.

While people further south generally found that rule acceptable, many northern Minnesotans cried foul. They claimed their population was so sparse that ATVs were having little impact on state forests.

The debate came to a head last February, when thousands of people showed up at a public meeting in Warroad to protest the DNR's plan to close some trails to ATVs. Many at the meeting were employees of Polaris or Arctic Cat, companies in the region that manufacture ATVs.

This year's new law gives the DNR the option of keeping all trails north of Highway 2 open to ATVs unless posted closed. And that doesn't happen very often.

The DNR is finding it difficult to keep some trails closed. Enforcement officer Jeff Bircham arrives at a trail in Beltrami Island State Forest that's supposed to be closed. But vandals have ripped the sign down.

"It looks like somebody has taken a sign and threw it off of the trail," said Bircham. "It was on this trail here. Where this trail is going to take us is down to a protected waters. That sign was up not long ago. We've had some problems with this area right here before."

Bircham says most ATVers obey the rules and don't cause damage in the forest. He says in the past few years, they've gotten better at policing themselves.

"I haven't seen those real blatant wetlands violations," Bircham said. "And are they out here? Certainly they could be out here. But I have not seen them as much as two years ago. I think some of that has come from just having the idea that when you get on that ATV, you may have some more responsibility than you thought you did."

The DNR's plans for Beltrami Island State Forest are up in the air. The agency's original management proposal is still on the table, but because of public response, plans to close trails may be scaled back.

Miles Hoganson of Roosevelt says most of the trails should be kept open. Hoganson loves driving ATVs in the state forest. He's president of a local sportsmen's club that includes ATV enthusiasts and works for Polaris.

Hoganson says he can drive on forest trails for hours without seeing another ATV. He believes environmentalists from the Twin Cities mistakenly believe the forest is being heavily damaged.

"One of the guys down south was saying that since they did the north of Highway 2 bill, everybody's running amok and getting crazy," Hoganson said. "Well, that isn't happening. ... The thing is, we're conservative environmentalists up here and they're extreme environmentalists."

Hoganson says the sportsmen's club has been working with the DNR to help identify trails that should be closed because they lead to sensitive areas. He says the club wants to keep trails open while protecting the environment.

"The reason we're up here is because we love it," said Hoganson. "We're not going to go wreck it. And we definitely don't appreciate people who have a misconception about how we live up here, blabbing their mouth about us being careless and reckless with our nature, because it just isn't happening."

Environmentalists say ATVs should be limited to specific areas. They want areas where people can walk down a trail without meeting an ATV.

Matt Norton, forestry advocate for the Twin Cities-based Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, says keeping trails open unless posted closed north of Highway 2 is a bad idea.

"It's totally contrary to any kind of rational land management system," said Norton. "It is not respectful of future generations, to whom we owe the duty of care for the lands."

Norton says one glaring problem with the law is that it allows an exception. During certain months of the year, hunters and trappers can travel cross country off of trails to get to their traps or deer stands. Norton says the marks they make through the woods would become new trails because other ATVers would follow.

Norton says the state should get rid of that exemption. He says with three-quarters of Minnesota's forests north of Highway 2, the state will also have to hire more staff to prevent the damage that he says will inevitably follow.

"Unless they do all those things -- and they're not going to -- I predict we will have a continuing and really disgraceful degradation and damage to the natural resources that we are lucky to have," said Norton.

DNR officials have finished inventory work and forest classification in only about a dozen of Minnesota's state forests. Tim Browning, the trails and waterways manager in the northwest region, says there's still lots of work to do to establish where ATVs should and shouldn't go on state land.

"This whole process that we're going through is not an attempt to get it perfect the first time," said Browning. "This is an attempt to make progress on a very difficult issue, and make big progress quickly, and that there will be a series of refinements."

Browning says he expects there will be an announcement later this month on the status of the trail plan for Beltrami Island State Forest. Meanwhile, environmental groups say there will be efforts in the Legislature next year to reverse the north of Highway 2 law.

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