A contentious land-use issue has arisen in recent years between those who walk and those who ride.
The growing presence of off-highway vehicles in Pillsbury and Foothills state forests isn't liked by hunters, hikers, bird watchers and others who want to traverse the land in peace. But all-terrain vehicle sales have boomed in recent years and the new owners want places to ride. The machines aren't street-legal -- who wants to ride a nimble chassis with knobby tires on a flat road? -- so many head for the nearest state forest.
Today many of our state forests show signs of irresponsible OHV use: rutted trails, eroded hills, wetlands shorn of natural vegetation. Non-riders are outraged by the destruction. Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation, a Duluth-based organization, has challenged off-highway vehicle use on public land. Through a series of lawsuits MRR has brought the issue to the attention of the Legislature, which last year ordered the DNR to inventory, on a forest by forest basis, all roads and trails, designate them as either open or closed to motorized use and change the classification of state forests to either "limited" or "closed."
Until 2002, state forests were classified as "managed," meaning OHVs could travel anywhere unless a sign said they couldn't. Now that classification has gone the way of the passenger pigeon. "Limited" means you can ride on trails that are signed as open. "Closed" means as closed implies: Stay off at all times.
This past week the DNR announced that it proposes to reclassify Pillsbury State Forest as "closed" and Foothills State Forest as "limited." Foothills would have about 44 miles of OHV-only trails and about 60 miles of trails open to both OHVs and highway-licensed vehicles. In Pillsbury, popular OHV routes such as Beauty Lake Road, Pillager State Forest Road and shorter spurs such as Walking Stick Trail and Section 27 trail would be off limits. OHVs already are banned from the snowmobile, horse riding and cross-country ski trails.
If the new designations become law they could take effect as early as this fall.
"Just think of going back to pre-ATV times," said Keith Simar, a DNR forester in Brainerd. "Standard pickup trucks would still be legal. That was a concern for some, especially deer hunters. But you wouldn't be able to ride your ATV to retrieve a deer or get to your stand. You would have to walk in from the main forest roads. For the most part the longest walk would be about three-quarters of a mile, so it's not an impossible thing."
The action in Pillsbury is based in part, Simar said, on the feared environmental impacts of increasing OHV use.
"There's a lot of development around the perimeter of the forest, especially along Highway 77," Simar said. "There's potential for every one of those new places to have an ATV trail going right from their backyard into the forest. We have to stay ahead of the curve and establish control so it doesn't get out of hand. Much of Pillsbury is very hilly and susceptible to erosion. It would have been very challenging to lay out a trail system that would be sustainable."
In Foothills, about 170 miles of vehicle access would be eliminated. The Hiram and Cut Lake cross country ski trails and the snowmobile and hiking trails already are closed to OHVs. The Spider Lake ski trail would be eliminated and portions opened to OHVs.
The forest reclassification proposal and a map showing lands affected by the proposal are on the DNR Web site at www.dnr.state.mn.us. Click on "public input" and then "management plans." The proposal can also be obtained from Olson by phoning (218) 828-2701.
Two public meetings have been scheduled to inform the public about the proposals. The Pillsbury plan will be presented from 6-9 p.m. on April 6 at Pillager High School. The Foothills plan will be presented from 6-9 p.m. on April 12 at Pine River-Backus High School in Pine River. Written comments must be submitted by 4:30 p.m. on April 30 to DNR, 1601 Minnesota Drive, Brainerd, MN 56401.
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