Control at last or inviting trouble?
Part I: Renegade riders
For Video and Photos: http://www.startribune.com/local/283082 ... LanchO7DiU
Trail Ambassador Perry May checks an area of "trail braiding" where riders widen out a spot on the trail by trying to avoid the deep water. May flagged this area and marked the spot on his GPS for future repair by the DNR.
New laws and extra enforcement aren't keeping all-terrain vehicles from going off trails to damage fragile state lands.
By DAVID SHAFFER, TOM MEERSMAN and GLENN HOWATT , Star Tribune staff writers
Last update: September 15, 2008 - 8:12 PM
State Conservation Officer Matt Miller stopped his truck at the edge of the Rum River, just in time to see the wet joyrider.
A young man on an all-terrain vehicle was driving down the center of the shallow river, waves of mud and water pouring away from his machine. It was the kind of destructive fun that draws many ATV riders to Minnesota's public lands and waters. It's also against the law.
The thrill-seeking rider drove up on the bank. Miller followed in his truck, to the man's nearby home and wrote him tickets. Returning to the Rum River, a state wild and scenic waterway north of the Twin Cities, Miller photographed a stretch of once-green shoreline that had been scraped into black ruts by ATV wheels.
"It seems like some of them think they can ride anywhere they wish regardless of what guidelines and laws there are," Miller said.
Across Minnesota, as ATV ridership soars, the wildly popular pastime is exacting a lasting, costly toll on the state's forests and wild lands.
Fragile wetlands are being churned into mud. Wildlife habitats are being torn up. Lake and river beds are being rutted. Hillsides are being eroded.
Five years ago, Minnesota enacted laws to keep all-terrain vehicles on trails. But officers like Miller keep catching riders doing the opposite.
To the dismay of lawful riders, renegades on four-wheelers are being caught damaging forests and trespassing on nature areas and private lands across the state, a Star Tribune analysis of five years of Department of Natural Resources enforcement records shows. Some are ignoring signs or driving around barriers put up to stop them. Others are brazenly posting videos of destructive riding on YouTube.
With stepped-up enforcement, nearly 1,600 riders have been issued tickets or written warnings for off-trail lawbreaking, but that's only a fraction of the violators, most of whom are never caught.
"You see the damage, you see the aftereffect of what's been happening, so you assume there are a lot more out there than we're catching," said Colleen Adam, a DNR conservation officer assigned to ATV enforcement.
Regulating ATV riding on public land has become a dominant issue for the DNR, which at times is divided over how to respond to the go-almost-anywhere vehicles. As ATV registrations have nearly tripled in the past decade, to 264,000, there's also unrelenting conflict between four-wheeler fans and hikers, canoeists, bird watchers and others who prefer quiet in the woods.
The DNR hasn't documented the full extent of ATV damage on public lands or estimated the cost of repairing it. But recent DNR monitoring efforts found problems in 17 state forests.
A Star Tribune investigation of ATVs on state lands also reveals:
• Renegade riders caught trashing the environment usually face small fines, seldom pay restitution and never lose driving privileges. The DNR doesn't enforce a 2005 law to keep the worst violators off ATVs, saying it doesn't have the money to do so.
• Riders often use state-approved trails to illegally enter sensitive places. Nearly one in four tickets or warnings issued for riding in wetlands and public waters occurred near places where it's legal to go, the DNR's data show.
• ATVs now represent the third-biggest claim on conservation officers' patrol time. Officers spend more hours checking on ATVs than they do on waterfowl and small-game hunting or snowmobiling. Yet the DNR Enforcement Division is roughly the same size as a decade ago -- a little more than 200 officers and supervisors.
DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten said the department is trying to change the virtually unregulated riding culture of the past -- a difficult job that is far from finished.
"It is offensive to me to have people say that it is not better out there than it was pre-2003," said Holsten, referring to the year new laws took effect.
To get the problem under control, the DNR is now taking the controversial step of paying rider clubs to act as "Trail Ambassadors" who encourage riders to obey the law. The agency also is closing many trails, and mapping thousands of miles of ATV routes in a hotly debated five-year review of motor use in state forests.
Damage? Check YouTube
Anyone who wants to see what ATVs can do to the environment need not go into the woods. Riders' exploits are posted all the time on YouTube.com, the video-sharing service on the Internet.
That's what Conservation Officer Paul Kuske discovered last year. Acting on a tip, he searched YouTube, and spotted a clip from the Pine Center ATV Trail, a 23-mile network on county and state land in Whitefish Lake Memorial Forest near Brainerd, Minn.
Wetlands lie adjacent to that trail. Watching the YouTube video several times, Kuske said he was "90 percent certain" he recognized at least one site. The clip showed ATV riders repeatedly driving through muddy areas just off the trail, including protected wetland. Kuske couldn't identify the riders: They wore helmets; mud covered their license plates.
Kuske said he was too busy to seek a subpoena ordering YouTube to name the video maker. The investigation stalled, no one was arrested, and the video disappeared from YouTube.
To protect the areas, foresters placed keep-out signs at the sites. Kuske also warned many ATV riders that the trail could be closed if violations persisted. He said it has helped.
Still, this spring, someone ripped out two DNR signs at one site featured on YouTube. Fresh tracks led into the mud. So the Star Tribune placed a hidden, motion-activated video camera there in June. It recorded a man and a woman riding ATVs into the mud and getting stuck (see it on StarTribune.com).
Under state rules, it is illegal for ATV riders to cause erosion or make off-trail ruts. Kuske, after being shown the new video, said that if he caught the riders, he likely would issue a written warning, rather than a ticket, because the keep-out signs were gone and the area isn't a protected wetland.
Some officers are experimenting with hidden cameras to gather evidence of destructive off-road riding, and one even led to a prosecution in Kittson County. But the videos usually don't clearly show the license plate or riders' faces, enforcement officials say.
"Isn't hurting anything"
More often, it takes luck to catch ATV riders ripping up the landscape.
Last September, conservation officer Miller got a call from a radio dispatcher reporting that ATVs had been seen in the Rum River in Isanti County.
Miller drove to a boat landing. He was just in time to see Delorne Kluck, then 20, "riding down dead-center in the river."
The officer followed Kluck to his house near Cambridge, and confronted him. Kluck was polite, Miller said, but insisted that he did nothing wrong, though he later paid a $300 fine. Two friends also got tickets.
It was Kluck's second bust for damaging the environment on an ATV. In June 2006, he was caught by other officers patrolling the Red Top ATV Trail, just east of Mille Lacs Lake, after he drove into a wetland.
"I still don't think it was a wetland," said Kluck, who paid a $100 fine for that violation. "It was just a trail with mud on it."
Kluck said that "most riders want to do stuff that's a challenge and see if they can make it through it. " If his ATV gets dirty, he washes it off by riding in the river, he said.
"For the most part this stuff we ride in isn't hurting anything," he said. And the DNR "makes it sound worse than it is so that people won't do it anymore, " he added.
Officers write tickets or warnings to about 439 ATV riders each year for damaging the land or off-roading where they shouldn't, the DNR data show. That includes 52 riders, on average, caught in waters or wetlands. Another 386 people are stopped for driving illegally in parks and preserves, in roadside ditches during bird-nesting season, in hunting areas during restricted hours or on private lands.
The worst lawbreakers keep riding. At least 42 people have been charged with careless or reckless ATV violations since 2005, but they didn't lose riding privileges despite a state law. Nor did they have to take a class and pass a state test before riding again, as the law requires. DNR acting enforcement chief Mark Johanson said the agency did not get money from the Legislature to track the offenders and impose the extra sanctions.
Increasingly, officers are turning into woodland traffic cops. They issue, on average, 3,400 tickets and warnings each year for safety and vehicle registration violations. That work is crucial to reducing ATV accidents, injuries and deaths, but means less time protecting natural resources.
Powerful ATVs can alter the landscape in a variety of ways. If ATVs ride in grassy agricultural ditches during the April-to-August closed season, pheasants often won't nest there, said Carmelita Nelson, who coordinates a DNR Roadsides for Wildlife program. Seeds from invasive weeds can be carried on muddy ATVs, and damaged wetlands often grow back with Reed canary grass instead of native plants.
Rarely made to pay
Only in rare cases are destructive riders made to pay restitution for tearing up the land.
One is Trevor James John of Crosslake, a former snowmobile racer. He was caught four years ago with his ATV stuck in a wetland at Flanders Lake near Brainerd.
John said he and a friend were "just out enjoying nature." The DNR complaint said they drove unregistered ATVs past a sign that said, "No motorized vehicles allowed beyond this point," and then got stuck in a wetland. Conservation officer Karl Hadrits, who spotted the ATVs, slogged through thigh-deep mud to reach the two riders.
After long court delays, a judge last May ordered John to pay $400 restitution, on top of an earlier $377 in fines and fees. John said he paid the money to make the case go away.
His ATV wasn't confiscated. Although conservation officers seize firearms, fishing gear, boats or fish houses for various violations, the seizure law doesn't apply when people damage the land with a vehicle.
"Why would you buy like a 4-wheel-drive ATV if you can't even go in mud?" John said. "... It wasn't like we were the first ones riding there. There were tracks all over the place. People have ridden there for years ... I don't understand what it is we are ruining to drive an ATV there."
Hadrits has busted numerous wetland violators, including people driving giant-wheeled trucks. At trouble spots, he hides in the woods, binoculars in hand, his ATV parked and ready to roll.
"Sometimes to catch people you have to sit back and hide and watch -- and it takes time," he said. In one stakeout, he chased three riders on his ATV for nearly 4 miles after they rutted up a lakeshore and then sped away.
Riders sometimes help. While patrolling the Pine Center Trail in May 2007, conservation officers Kuske and Miller met two riders who said that two kids on ATVs were stuck in a bog down the trail. "Sure enough, they were right up to the handlebars," Kuske said. "... They had been in here for probably a good half-hour or better, ripping around and going around."
The boys had driven around a keep-out sign and barrier logs.
The clear-water bog, once the home of wood ducks, "was like a pudding. It was so churned up, completely devoid of vegetation, even around the edges, just one big soup hole," he added.
As Kuske and Miller questioned the 17-year-old boys, from Champlin and Dayton, the two riders who reported the incident returned -- angry at the kids' behavior.
"They wanted a piece of these guys," Kuske said, who intervened to prevent a violent confrontation.
Some ATV riders worry that destructive acts damage the image of their sport and will sour Minnesotans -- the vast majority of whom don't own ATVs -- on allowing motorized trails on public lands.
"If we have all these bad apples digging up the mud all over the place ... pretty soon no one is going to have a spot to ride," said Dan Scholl, president of the Eastern Morrison County 4-Wheeler Club. "And we are out for more trails. To get more trails, we have to keep everybody from making it look like a bad sport."
Fixing the scars
Environmental damage from ATVs, however, is more than bad PR. Scarred landscapes can be costly to fix and take years to heal.
Nowhere is this more visible than at Spider Lake Recreation Area in north-central Minnesota, where 26 miles of trails became a magnet for ATVs and 4-wheel-drive trucks early in the decade.
It once featured a hillside deliberately strewn with boulders and logs for trucks to scramble over. The eroded "challenge hill" has been closed, and the DNR has spent $450,000 since 2003 to deal with wetlands, lakeshores and hillsides damaged by illegal ATV riding.
Some areas at Spider Lake are recovering, yet new ATV damage is visible. Last Memorial Day weekend, conservation officers ticketed or warned 10 ATV riders for driving off the trail, including two who rode around in a wetland.
"You get, lots of times, younger groups maybe in their 20s or early 30s who think that they're on their own little private piece of property and they're going to do what they want to do," said DNR conservation officer Chad Sherack, who patrols the area.
Even minor damage, such as ATV ruts, can become a costly problem. At Sugar Hills, a cross-country ski area near Grand Rapids, Minn., almost every hillside has been damaged by illegal riding over the past 10 years, said Bruce Slinkman, president of the Minnesota Nordic Ski Association and a contractor who sometimes has been hired to smooth and regrade trails.
On hills, the ruts gradually erode into gullies after a few rainfalls. "I have encountered gullies that are 2 feet deep to a couple cases that are 4 feet deep -- the trail is impassible," he added. It costs $1,000 just to bring heavy equipment into the woods for a day, and a repair job can easily cost double that, he said.
Since 2006, when DNR established the first of two damage-monitoring programs, field workers have reported wetland damage or signs of illegal off-trail riding in 17 state forests and other scattered state land.
Yet many of the state's 58 forests have not been checked for such damage.
"I don't claim that we're doing anywhere near 100 percent monitoring," said Keith Simar, recreation coordinator for the DNR Forestry Division. "Our direction to foresters is to deal with the issues as we come across them in our normal work, not to go out and try to find unfound problem sites."
Simar said he sought $100,000 to systematically look for forest ATV damage, but the money wasn't approved.
State and county foresters have placed signs, downed logs, fences and boulders to keep out ATVs. Those efforts haven't always worked. At one spot near the Mississippi River headwaters, determined riders have repeatedly moved large rocks blocking a favored unauthorized riding area.
A few good boulders
In Beltrami County, foresters recently discovered a way to keep vehicles out of closed areas: 5,000-pound boulders.
Rocks smaller than about 3 feet in diameter can be yanked aside by a 4-wheel-drive truck, said John Winter, who heads county recreation programs. The county paid a contractor $14,000 to place about 35 boulders, other barriers and signs at eight closed access points to the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest.
Logs and branches also have been put on closed trails, and in another innovation, workers scatter soil over the piles. If anyone tries to cut the logs, grit will ruin the chainsaw.
At one spot where old keep-out signs and barriers had been ripped out, workers embedded new signposts in concrete. "We fortified that one and, by God, it worked," Winter said.
He believes it will take years, and pressure from riders who don't break the law, to change the thinking of those who do.
"I am hoping they will help to influence the ones who are raising hell," Winter said. "To say we are going to get all the resource damage under control, that is going to take a hell of a long time."
Star Tribune photographer Brian Peterson contributed to this article.
Part II: Renegade riders
A club-sponsored ride leads to an investigation of a damaged wetland, triggering a fox guarding the henhouse debate.
By DAVID SHAFFER and TOM MEERSMAN, Star Tribune staff writers
Last update: September 16, 2008 - 6:28 AM
SECOND OF THREE PARTS
On a sunny Saturday in June, a fleet of ATVs motored into the woods of north-central Minnesota for a day of four-wheeling fun and pig roast called the "Pork and Ride."
The procession of riders on the outing, sponsored by an ATV club called the Over the Hills Gang, stopped on their way to the Moose River Trail. Most left their machines for a short hike. But three riders reportedly steered their ATVs off the trail into a pond fringed with cattails, roaring through it until the fragile wetland was a muddy mess.
A few weeks later, members of the same club hopped on ATVs to ride the same trail, but in a much different role. They were "Trail Ambassadors," handing out brochures on safe, responsible ATV riding. The Over the Hills Gang was paid $34 an hour for its two-man patrols -- by the state.
Such payments, totaling $250,000 a year, are a new strategy that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources hopes will reduce the damage that some riders are doing to forests and wildlife habitat.
But the government aid to rider clubs also has become a flashpoint in the debate over how the DNR should confront the challenge of ATVs, which are filling Minnesota forests in larger numbers than ever before.
"It's pretty discouraging," said DNR conservation officer Cary Shoutz, who is investigating the reported wetland damage during the club-sponsored ride.
"Here we have clubs that are supposed to be promoting good things about riding ATVs responsibly, and they're actually doing different when they're out there, where nobody can see them," Shoutz added.
In July, representatives of two conservation organizations resigned as advisers to DNR's Ambassador program, saying they were frustrated with the DNR's off-road policies.
But the DNR official in charge of the Ambassador program defended it and the club, saying the fact that the agency even found out about the illegal riding was a sign of progress.
"I see this as an example of something that did happen, that shouldn't have happened, that wasn't hush-hushed," Capt. Mike Hammer, the DNR education program coordinator, said of the wetland damage. "It was brought to the attention of authorities so we can deal with it. ... People are starting to step up and take responsibility in their local areas and clean this stuff up."
Indeed, Shoutz said he got a call about the incident shortly after it happened, but not from a club member. The witness who tipped off the DNR told the Star Tribune he was simply along for the ride and didn't know the culprits. He said he was unwilling to speak publicly because it might cause him trouble in his work.
Meri Lysne, president of the Over the Hills Gang ATV Club, first denied to the newspaper she knew anything about the incident. Later in the same interview, she conceded that it happened.
"If three people go off into a wetland on a designated trail ride, what are you supposed to do? Shoot them?" she said. More recently, she added, the club has discussed the matter but "as far as I'm concerned, this subject is null and void."
In Minnesota, riders of ATVs, dirt bikes or off-road trucks seldom faced sanctions for such acts until 2003, when new state laws took effect. A Star Tribune analysis of DNR data found that officers now ticket or warn about 439 ATV riders a year for violating natural-resource laws, though that is just a fraction of the violators. Riders usually are long gone when officers discover eroded hills, illegal trails and tire-tracked wetlands.
ATV registrations tripled in the past decade to 264,000 last year. To deal with problems, the DNR has stepped up ATV enforcement, closed trails, documented damaged areas and, this year, trained 69 people sponsored by 12 rider clubs to patrol trails under the Ambassador program.
Out on the trail
Perry May squinted in the summer sunlight as he drove an ATV along the Moose River ATV trail in Land O' Lakes State Forest. He stopped, swung a leg over the seat of his Arctic Cat 500 to dismount and pulled out a GPS device.
"There's some off-trail traffic happening here," he said, referring to where tall grass, daisies and Indian paintbrush had been flattened in tire tracks leading to an old logging road.
Another rider, Ken LeVoir, marked the scene by writing down the GPS coordinates and tying orange tape to a tree branch. That would alert the DNR to a potential trouble spot.
LeVoir and May, members of the Over The Hills Gang ATV Club, are enthusiastic riders who were among the first to volunteer for weekend Trail Ambassador training. The program is modeled after a similar effort in Wisconsin that has earned praise there for improving rider behavior.
The Ambassadors can't enforce ATV laws. But they are encouraged to call a conservation officer if they witness unsafe or destructive ATV use.
May and LeVoir, who weren't along on the June ride under investigation by the DNR, spent a Sunday in July motoring down the trail as Ambassadors. Their uniforms were fluorescent yellow and orange vests, and they handed out brochures and maps, not tickets.
Where two trails met in the forest, three young dirt-bike riders pulled up and stopped at the sight of the men on the ATVs.
"This area is closed to motorcycles," LeVoir said to them.
"We didn't see the signs," came the reply.
Then May jumped in. "We are not enforcement officers," he said. "So we are just trying to explain, you know, compliance rules and that. This trail system isn't marked as well as it should be and we'll definitely report that to the DNR."
The bikers, on the other hand, wouldn't be reported to a conservation officer. They drove off.
LeVoir said he thought the three dirt-bikers made an honest mistake. The rules can be confusing, he said, and his approach is "to give people the opportunity to do it the right way" before calling an officer.
Although Ambassadors are volunteers, each of their hours on the trail earns $17 for their club. The club can then reimburse volunteers for expenses such as gasoline, according to the program rules.
One rule limits ATV Ambassadors to riders sponsored by clubs that belong to the All-Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota (ATVAM). It is a statewide group that has lobbied the Legislature for more trail funding and against tougher regulations and enforcement. Ambassadors also must be certified to teach ATV safety training classes under a separate DNR program.
Ken Irish of Inver Grove Heights, the group's president and a founder of another rider club in Crow Wing County, was one of the first Ambassadors to complete the DNR training program. Though he had been nabbed by a conservation officer in 2003 for illegal ATV riding, the offense didn't disqualify him from the outreach program.
"I got caught -- I'm not ashamed to say it," said Irish, who was ticketed, and paid an $80 fine, for riding on a posted non-motorized trail in the Crow Wing State Forest. He also got a ticket in 1999 for riding an unregistered dirt bike.
Irish said the 2003 ticket taught him a lesson and got him involved with the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders, an ATV/dirt bike club, to push for legal places to ride. "I took a positive approach," Irish said.
The DNR's Hammer agrees. He praised Irish, and expressed no concerns about a handful of other trail Ambassadors whose violations of fish, game or other regulations turned up in DNR background checks. Unless people have "gross violations," such as a driving while intoxicated, or patterns of less-serious offenses, they are not excluded from the program, Hammer said. So far, no one has been turned away from the Ambassador program because of a background check, he added.
"Somewhere along the line they may have screwed up," said Hammer, who believes the Ambassadors will help discourage illegal, destructive riding.
Skeptical of riders
Nobody is quite sure who screwed up at the June 7 "Pork and Ride" fundraiser and trail ride.
Before a pork barbeque, more than 100 ATV riders took off in groups for trail rides. In one group, riders parked their ATVs at a shallow pond just off the trail, and most of the group walked away to see the ruins of an abandoned homestead, according to the witness who alerted the DNR. Several riders stayed behind, including three who drove back and forth through the pond and surrounding cattails for the next half hour, the witness said.
When the others returned, the witness said, the pond had been turned into a "slough of black mud" and one ATV was stuck. The group pulled it out and rode on. The witness said he didn't know the riders who entered the wetland, or whether they were club members.
Audubon Minnesota and the Jack Pine Coalition, two groups that support more regulation of ATVs on public lands, are skeptical that rider groups are a solution to illegal, destructive driving. They say the start-up funds for the Ambassador program should be used to hire more conservation officers instead.
"There is no sense in having people who are associated with other people who are breaking the law trying to police them," said Susan Solterman, policy director for Audubon Minnesota.
Solterman and Gene Larimore of the Jack Pine Coalition, a loose collection of outdoors enthusiasts, briefly served on the DNR's advisory group for the Ambassador program. But they grew frustrated with the DNR's rules, and resigned in protest in July.
"There was no opportunity for advice," said Larimore, who believes the Ambassador program does little more than hand over public money to rider groups.
He and Solterman said they believe state law required the DNR to include non-motor groups in the program. They said conservationists, hunters and other outdoors enthusiasts should be allowed to serve as Trail Ambassadors to promote conservation and environmental protection and also bridge the gap between rider and non-rider groups.
Hammer of the DNR said the department is "not trying to include or exclude anybody." He said Larimore and Solterman quit before giving the program a chance to succeed.
Hammer and other conservation officers believe ATV rider clubs can help promote responsible behavior, just as snowmobile clubs did in that sport 25 years ago. Yet that view is not universal within the department.
Shoutz, the officer who was first contacted by the witness to the Over the Hills Gang incident, said that ATV club members are unlikely to turn in friends for illegal riding. The witness who reported the incident was not a club member or in the Ambassador program.
"I'm in one of the busiest ATV areas in the state and I have not received one complaint from an Ambassador about anybody," Shoutz said.
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Control at last or inviting trouble?
A massive DNR program to decide where ATVs may go in state forests is meant to reduce damage and resolve conflicts. But some agency experts say the plan leaves too much land open to motors.
By TOM MEERSMAN, DAVID SHAFFER and Video by BRIAN PETERSON, Star Tribune staff
Last update: September 16, 2008 - 12:07 PM
THIRD OF THREE PARTS
After five years of meticulous mapping, Minnesota is on the verge of ensuring that thousands of miles of backwoods trails and roads are open to all-terrain vehicles.
It will be the state's biggest step yet to gain control over ATV riding in its public forests, and it's stoking a contentious debate over what place motors have in the woods.
The immense trail project will have lasting consequences for outdoor recreation in Minnesota. It also is bitterly dividing the state Department of Natural Resources, which manages 4.2 million acres of state forests.
Some DNR experts are worried that the changes will leave forests and other wild lands vulnerable to damage from ATVs.
Others call the newly sanctioned trails, which could exceed 7,700 miles, the best way to control what had been a motorized free-for-all on public land.
In shaping the plan, top DNR officials repeatedly overruled field staff by approving motorized access near riverbanks, bogs and old-growth forest, and in areas that harbor red-shouldered hawks and rare plants, interviews with DNR staff and a review of agency records show.
The agency says riders tend to stay on marked trails. It contends there is no need to route trails away from wetlands and other critical areas that can be ravaged by the wheels of wayward ATVs.
"We're trying to give the users the benefit of the doubt, instead of the agency coming out and always saying 'No, no, no, no, no, no, no,'" said Bob Leibfried, DNR regional manager for ecological services.
But many of those who camp, fish, canoe, watch birds and ride horses on public lands are finding those pursuits less enjoyable or impossible in the presence of noisy and fast-moving off-road vehicles.
"You don't mix motorized recreation with a wild experience. You can't have it," said Matt Norton, forestry and wildlife advocate for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. "One is going to lose out. Guess which one that is going to be?"
ATV rider groups say they deserve trails in state forests because four-wheelers are excluded from wildlife management areas, most parks, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and other public lands.
Riders generally give the DNR high marks for its mapping work. Len Hardy, first vice-president of the All-Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota, said rider clubs in the state want a completed trail system. He sees it as a way to repair the scars, rather than cause more.
"We've been riding on these trails now for 20 years, some of them, and nothing's ever been done to them," he said. "We know there's damage out there."
Once a trail system is determined, Hardy said, clubs will be able to apply for state money to fix the problems.
'We failed as an agency'
The sweeping trail survey has its roots in a debate that flared six years ago. In 2002, the Star Tribune reported that ATVs and four-wheel drive trucks were running off trails into wetlands and gouging hillsides in many forests and wildlife management areas, including one of the first motorized trails in the state, the Spider Lake Recreation Area northwest of Brainerd.
The Legislature ordered the agency to get control of the situation at Spider Lake and elsewhere by taking inventory of roads and trails in all 58 state forests and, by the end of 2008, identifying routes where off-road enthusiasts should be allowed to drive.
"We failed as an agency in the management of ATVs," said DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten. He said the situation has improved significantly in the past five years. Holsten became deputy commissioner in 2003 and commissioner in 2007.
"My job is to bring some order to an unordered world," he said.
The trails in question are already there. Almost all were blazed over the years by loggers, hunters and, more recently, ATV riders who went wherever they wanted in the state forests.
The DNR spent $2.3 million to map all roads, trails and other corridors in state forests. Then the agency assigned teams of experts from various divisions, including trails and waterways, forestry, fish and wildlife, enforcement and ecological resources, to recommend which routes remain open in each forest. After holding public meetings and reviewing citizen comments, the commissioner makes the final trail decisions.
So far, the DNR has approved about 3,300 miles in 33 forests as open for recreational riding and closed 2,070 miles. The DNR expects to close about 1 mile of trail for every 2 miles kept open. When the remaining 25 forests are approved later this year, the state could end up with 7,700 miles of recreational routes.
Wisconsin, by contrast, has about 180 miles of ATV trails on DNR land, and its state forest system is about one-eighth Minnesota's size.
"Here in Wisconsin, our lands were designated as closed to ATVs until we decided to open some of them," said Steve Petersen, DNR superintendent of Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest in northern Wisconsin. "That's different than Minnesota where initially everything was open to ATVs and now you're trying to close some trails."
Most ATV riding in Wisconsin is on county lands, he said. Minnesota also has thousands of miles of trails and roads open to ATVs in county and federal forests.
Ideas were rejected
If it had been up to some DNR trail planning teams, many more places would be off-limits to ATVs.
Teams recommended closing areas to ATVs to protect nearby wetlands and other natural resources, but top DNR managers repeatedly ordered revisions that favored motor access.
Mike North, a DNR ecologist who reviewed motor policies in north-central Minnesota, said it only takes a few riders illegally driving off the trail and "the next thing you know you can have some pretty significant wetland damage." Other agency experts said they feared for their jobs if they spoke out publicly about such concerns.
• In Sturgeon River and Crow Wing state forests, planning teams recommended 50 areas where even hunter use of ATVs would be banned. These areas included wetlands with rare plants, pristine lakes and old-growth hardwoods. Top DNR officials have overruled 80 percent of the closures, allowing hunters to drive ATVs off-trail at certain times.
• In Mississippi Headwaters State Forest, which features 40 miles of near-wilderness riverfront, three of the five planning team members recommended that the entire forest be closed to off-trail riding because of sensitive soils and past illegal ATV riding in the river. DNR Regional Director Mike Carroll in Bemidji kept part of the forest open to ATVs.
• In Nemadji State Forest, on the Wisconsin border in Pine County, the planning team proposed to close a trail that borders an old-growth forest containing rare plants. DNR managers rejected the closure, saying someone would have to prove the trees and plants would be harmed before they took such an action.
• In Cloquet Valley State Forest, north of Duluth, DNR's team recommended that dozens of trails that dead-ended at wetlands be closed. DNR managers rejected that advice, saying riding off-trail into wetlands is already illegal, and closing trails near them would be "layering on" regulations.
Top DNR officials said it's no surprise that some ideas were challenged and overruled. Holsten, the DNR commissioner, said he wanted specific reasons to tell the public why trails needed to be closed, such as proof that unique natural features needed extra protection.
"We asked hard questions," Holsten said of his meetings with experts. "We asked them to look at it from this perspective, and none of them looked at it from that perspective."
The DNR still is considering how many areas should be limited to hunting on foot and whether all recreational trail riding should be banned during the firearms deer season, officials said.
Costs not considered
Jim Weseloh, once a Grand Rapids-based planner for DNR, said he retired last year rather than continue with a process he thought was leading the agency into trouble.
Weseloh said agency managers had a goal of keeping as many trails open as possible. When planning team members brought up costs to maintain trails or enforce rules, he said, they were told: "Don't worry about that."
Forrest Boe, director of DNR's trails and waterways division, said that the maintenance costs were not considered because the five-year planning effort focused mainly on environmental issues.
At two heavily used ATV trails -- Spider Lake and the 25-mile Red Top Trail just east of Mille Lacs Lake -- the state has spent about $650,000 to deal with erosion and other damage since 2002. Even so, both trail systems need more work.
Foresters who checked on Spider Lake in June concluded that one trail segment, "will continue to cause serious erosion, cutting, and damage to the trees themselves" without repairs. In July, parts of the Red Top trail were in such bad shape that Aitkin County, the main landowner, closed segments until they were renovated.
Boe said maintenance costs will depend on such factors as how many riders use a trail, whether it is susceptible to erosion and the frequency of storms that saturate soils and down trees. Holsten said the DNR will look closely at costs and other issues.
"This isn't a trail designation system that's locked down in granite forever," Holsten said. "It will be under constant analysis and review once it's put in place."
Off-road hunting rules are confounding at best
The DNR announced rule changes Thursday designed to avoid conflicts between recreational riders and those pursuing game. Some make sense; others do not.
By DENNIS ANDERSON, Star Tribune
Last update: September 19, 2008 - 1:56 AM
http://www.startribune.com/sports/outdo ... LanchO7DiU
Hunters, hunters who ride off-highway vehicles (OHVs) and recreational OHV riders can be forgiven if they're confused by the Department of Natural Resources announcement Thursday that OHVs will be banned from "DNR forest trails'' during most upcoming firearms deer hunting seasons.
The DNR said the action is intended to reduce conflicts and potential conflicts between firearms deer hunters and recreational OHV riders -- the latter defined, for this purpose, as OHV riders during most firearms deer seasons (the restriction won't apply during the October antlerless season or the muzzleloader season) who do not hold deer hunting licenses.
Let's break it down:
• First, if you purchased a firearms deer license last year and also have registered an OHV with the DNR, you will soon receive in the mail a brochure that clarifies and explains many regulations affecting you and use of your machine while big-game hunting.
• Details about Thursday's announcement restricting OHVs (meaning all-terrain vehicles, off-highway motorcycles and off-road vehicles such as Jeeps) during firearms deer hunting seasons is not included in the brochure, however.
• In the northeastern Minnesota 100 series deer season, the recreational riding restriction will be in effect Nov. 8-23. In the 200 series deer season, the recreational riding restriction will be in effect Nov. 8-16. For season details, go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/deer/index.html.
• Thursday's restriction on recreational OHV riding during firearms deer seasons applies to state-owned land within state forests. This includes mapped and designated OHV trails (listed on www.findthetrails.com, which takes you to the DNR website) on these lands, as well as tote trails and any other trails on state lands within state forests. (Private, county and federal lands often also lie in state forests -- the restriction does not apply to these.)
• Nor does the restriction apply to "grant-in-aid'' trails that lie outside state forests. These trails are on land owned by counties, among other entities. The Soo Line Trail, for instance, which is one of the state's longest, running from Onamia to Moose Lake to Cass Lake, is grant-in-aid, and Thursday's restriction does not apply to it.
• DNR trails and waterways division policy and program manager Ron Potter estimates that about 40 percent of Minnesota's designated OHV trail miles lie outside of state forests and are not covered by Thursday's restriction. The DNR website will be updated with current closures before the firearms deer seasons.
• Thursday's restriction also does not apply to what officially are known as state forest roads or minimum-maintenance state forest roads. Potter said these roads should be designated by a number or name, but might not be. All mapped and designated OHV trails are marked by signs, however,
• In all, the state owns about 4.5 million acres of forest lands, almost all of it in the 100 and 200 series deer hunting zones. By comparison, the Superior National Forest encompasses 3.85 million acres, and Chippewa National Forest is 1.6 million acres.
• Meanwhile, if you are a deer hunter -- defined as someone who holds a license -- you can ride on these and other trails during deer season provided you do so before legal shooting hours, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and after legal shooting hours.
• The same restricted hours of OHV use by deer hunters apply to all public lands in the state. However, hunters who own OHVs can use them on private land any time they want, provided they own the land or have been given permission to ride there by the property owner.
• Thursday's OHV restriction during firearms deer seasons should be a win-win for everyone. Most recreational OHV riders don't want to be in the woods during deer season, and most deer hunters don't want them there.
• The same can't be said for a law passed by the Legislature last session removing a restriction requiring OHV riders to be 20 yards from their machines before shooting at ruffed grouse. Now they can pop these birds as soon as they dismount and uncase their guns.
Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, carried the bill in the House. The measure was never heard in the Senate, but won approval by a House-Senate conference committee.
What a shame that the state with the best grouse hunting in the nation, and that otherwise prides itself on a population of hunters who honor in most instances not only the spirit but the letter of fair chase, would kowtow to those for whom such a regal bird is so cheaply regarded.
Dennis Anderson • email@example.com