Brainerd, Minn. — Highway 66 runs along the shore of Big Trout Lake in northern Crow Wing County. It's a popular lake with anglers who come in pursuit of the coldwater lake trout found here.
The highway ditch near the lake is a busy ATV route. The heavy traffic is digging deep ruts along the bottom of the ditch.
Rain washes sediment along the ruts, down a steep hill and into Big Trout Lake, raising concern about the impact on the sensitive lake trout population.
Larry Wannebo lives just off Highway 66, up the hill from Big Trout Lake. He chairs a committee set up by the Crow Wing County Commission to consider closing road ditches to ATVs. It's hard to get everyone to even agree on the definition of damage, says Wannebo.
"Is the fact the grass is matted down like this damage? No, probably not," says Wannebo, standing in the ditch near his home. "Is this right in front of us where it's all bare rock and dirt, and it looks like a gravel pit, is that damage? I think it is. But ATVers say no, this isn't damage, because this is an allowed use."
ATV users are allowed to ride in ditches unless they're restricted by local governments. State money can't be used to repair the ruts in the ditch and across private driveways unless the area is closed to ATVs. The ATV repair money can be used only for damage in areas where ATVs are not allowed.
I believe the ATV users and clubs need to step up to the plate and be not just part of the problem, but they need to be part of the solution.
- Crow Wing County Commissioner Ed Larson
Many ATV riders don't want to close this ditch, or any others in the county. They say the problem can be solved by maintenance, filling in the ruts in the ditch a couple of times a year.
Larry Wannebo says that won't stop the erosion as long as the traffic continues. The Crow Wing County Commission's ATV committee will likely recommend the county make portions of this ditch off limits to ATVs in order to protect Big Trout Lake.
John McGuire, a local businessman who represents ATV riders on the committee, says he doesn't want to close any highway ditches to ATVs, but he says he's willing to compromise on areas where there's a clear safety or environmental concern.
He thinks even a handful of ditch closures will get the attention of ATV riders.
"Hopefully it's going to be a wakeup call to the users that, 'OK, if you want to protect the rest of your road right-of-ways, you need to take responsibility for them and take responsibility for maintaining them, fixing the damage,'" says McGuire.
ATV riders need to do a better job of policing themselves and driving responsibly, says McGuire, who doesn't hesitate to lecture ATV riders he thinks are being irresponsible. But he also thinks the state needs to make more money from ATV license fees available to fix the inevitable damage caused by ATV traffic.
It's hard to find common ground on the issue of ATV use, says Crow Wing County Commissioner Ed Larson. On one side are the people who want to ban ATVs, on the other side are those who want no restrictions on where they can ride.
Larson says the county needs to come down somewhere in the middle, reducing the environmental damage without punishing responsible ATV users. But Larson insists ATV riders will ultimately determine the severity of future restrictions on their sport.
"I believe the ATV users and clubs need to step up to the plate and be not just part of the problem, but they need to be part of the solution. Or the restrictions will be far greater than what they would like," says Larson.
The Crow Wing County Commission may decide to close some road ditches to ATVs by next summer. Larson favors a case-by-case review, not a sweeping ban on ATV access to ditch right-of-ways.
Several miles from the highway, mostly hidden from public view, more serious ATV damage in Crow Wing County is not getting as much attention.
John Reynolds, who works for an environmental research lab in Brainerd, and often hikes these logging trails with his dog, stands on a a muddy logging road about 30 miles north of Brainerd, next to a metal gate that is supposed to keep ATV riders off the road. The gate, installed by the county, stands open.
"Most of these trails are what I would call winter logging trails," says Reynolds. "That's the only time they're allowed to use them for logging because they cross wetlands."
A half mile or so from the open gate is a section of state-owned forest land. At the boundary, a large tree has been felled across the road. Reynolds says the Department of Natural Resources put it there to stop ATVs, but someone has used a chainsaw to reopen the trail. An empty signpost stands next to it.
A little farther down the trail, a red sign showing an ATV with a slash through it has been pulled from the road and propped against a tree.
Just ahead is Hay Creek, a small stream that winds through the woods. A few feet from the creek, the logging trail becomes a trench two feet deep and three or four feet wide.
Reynolds has pictures he says prove the damage was caused by ATVs. He says deep ruts collected spring runoff, and within a few days the ruts turned into a small stream, cutting its way into nearby Hay Creek, washing sediment downstream, and leaving a gash in the forest floor.
Reynolds gets angry every time he hikes past the site.
"The politicians aren't going to do anything about it until they're pressured. And at the rate it's happening right now, Minnesota is just going to become a laughingstock of the whole nation. People are going to come here and think, what a bunch of hillbillies," says Reynolds.
The DNR has tried to restrict access to the area, but enforcement is difficult because access to both ends of the trail runs through county-managed land.
DNR Area Fisheries Supervisor Tim Brastrup says it's impossible to monitor every environmentally sensitive area to prevent ATV incursions. He says ATVs need a place to ride, but they also need more restrictions. Brastrup says ATVs are already causing irreparable environmental damage.
"If they continue to do what they're going to do, they're going to ruin their sport and we're going to continually have impacts to our resources. That's just plain a loss. Because you can't make up the loss, especially in wetlands. Once it's damaged, it's damaged. It takes eons to repair that," says Brastrup.
Brastrup says the fact that environmentalists, ATV riders and state and local officials are working together in Crow Wing County is a good starting point.
Members of the ATV committee appointed by the county commission are hoping Crow Wing County can develop a model that will be a first step in managing ATV use through restrictions, education and cooperation.
The Crow Wing County Commission may make a decision by early 2006 on closing some road ditches to ATVs.