The DNR is being asked to determine the possible impact to state forests that could result if Off-Highway Vehicle trail plans it developed last year become reality.
Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation, the group making the request, has submitted a petition to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board in which it asked the DNR to assess the possible damage to state forests that could result if it builds or opens to motorized recreation several trail systems in Cass and Crow Wing counties. The plans, presented to the public in June, would allow for construction of a trail system in the Spider Lake area near Pine River, the opening of a trail in the Land 'O Lakes State Forest to motorcycles and the development of a 4-wheel drive truck trail in the Cuyuna State Recreation Area near Crosby.
The DNR has until Feb. 6 to decide if it will agree to the request.
The proposals, known as "Off-Highway Vehicle System Plans," were created after the Legislature ordered the DNR to develop a trail system for OHV users, who had lobbied for a managed trail system after agreeing to buy licenses for their vehicles. The money raised from the license fees was used to develop 19 trail plans statewide. The only plans that have passed through the public review process are those for Cass and Crow Wing counties.
Jeff Brown, executive director of the MRR, says the organization has proven that OHV use damages public lands and that current DNR policy fails to protect these lands. He said he is especially concerned that 45 of Minnesota's 57 state forests are under a "managed" classification, meaning they're open to OHV travel unless posted as closed.
"It's been clearly demonstrated," Brown said, "that OHVs have a significant impact on the environment. If we're going to build a statewide trail system then we better exercise the utmost caution. It only makes sense. What we want is a systematic way of determining where OHVs should go and where they shouldn't go."
If the DNR agrees to the MRR's request it would complete an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) for each of its OHV plans. These are relatively inexpensive and quickly done. But if it's determined that significant environmental damage could result from any plan then the DNR is required to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which take considerably more time and could cost around $100,000 apiece, said Tom Balcom, DNR environmental planning director.
Balcom and other DNR personnel said the MRR's request is highly unusual because environmental assessments typically are done only on site-specific projects such as golf courses, roads and housing developments. "It's a little difficult to do one on a conceptual plan," said Jack Olson, a trail planner in the DNR's Brainerd office.
Said Balcom: "Are proposals within plans actual projects yet? That's the issue. They have every right to ask for an environmental review, but normally we do these on actual projects, not plans. At what point do plans become projects? We're looking at that right now."
When asked if he viewed the MRR's action as a tactic to delay the construction of OHV trails Balcom said, "That would be the cynical view. But I don't think anyone would say there's no impact from OHV use. But if it comes on trails that are already being used would it increase the impact to let people know where they are? It actually might reduce the impact in other places."
Brown said the MRR will pursue legislation -- Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, was mentioned as a possible bill sponsor -- that would create a law stating that all future OHV planning must pass through an environmental review process. A similar bill was introduced several years ago, Brown said, but it never made it out of committee.
"We want the people of Minnesota to wake up to the fact that we're an island," Brown said. "No other neighboring state allows off-trail travel in their state forests. Our DNR wants to build trails in forests where it's legal to leave the trail. I don't think we want to be that island."
If the DNR denies the MRR's request for environmental assessments of its OHV plans that decision could be challenged in court.
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