It was a slow train coming, but relief is on the way for Foothills State Forest. It was announced this week that trails where OHVs have been run in the area will be cut by about 240 miles -- good news that's about five years too late.
Until last year OHVs ran willy-nilly over 300 miles of trails in the Foothills. The resulting damage might be worse than anywhere else in Minnesota. If you haven't seen it, spare yourself.
Non-motorized users of the forest cried foul and pleaded with the DNR to do something. The DNR looked around -- even former Commissioner Allen Garber came for a tour -- and applied a Band-Aid on a bleeding wound.
Fences were installed, trees cut down and rocks strategically placed to block trails. Guess what? OHVs go around fences and climb over trees and rocks. The damage got worse and now the scars will take years to heal.
In fairness to the DNR, perhaps only Nostradamis could have foreseen the boom in ATV sales and the problems it would create. When the Legislature mandated that some of the money spent on ATV purchases be used to develop a trail system the job fell to the DNR. The Legislature banned overland travel in state forests in 2002, but outlaw riders ignored the law. Enforcement officers can't be at every trailhead, especially when many of the stations where they're needed most are vacant.
Fences might have stopped a few OHV riders from heading down closed trails, but many others simply ignored the law.
A few years ago the DNR finally got a trail plan in the works, but it was stalled by Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation, whose members don't want OHVs anywhere on state land. MRR took the DNR to court, challenging its environmental assessment process.
Bit of a quandary, wouldn't you agree? You're told to make a plan, then the plan is put on hold while a judge decides who's right and who's wrong. Meanwhile, yonder OHV rider heads for the hills -- Foothills, that is.
We've seen some classic bureaucratic tangles in our time and this was one of the worst. The Foothills paid the price.
Now, at last, a remedy is in sight. Under a proposal announced earlier this week, most of the Foothills and the county land around it will be classified as "limited," meaning OHVs will be allowed on designated trails only. This affects 22,000 acres of state land and 55,000 acres of county land.
The Spider Lake ski trail is gone -- really? -- the victim, the DNR says, of declining sales of ski passes. Now why would ski pass sales be declining? Could it be because the Spider Lake trail and others like it are so damaged by OHVs they can no longer be skied on?
But the bigger question is what can be done to restore the Foothills State Forest?
Limiting OHV travel is a start, but how to return the trees, shrubs, flowers and other fauna ravaged by the machines? Nature can handle the job just fine if given, say, a hundred years or so. Great for the grandkids, but those of us who'll be heading for the exit within the next 50 years would never again see those damaged trails as they were in pre-OHV days.
I called the DNR to ask about restoration plans for the Foothills and was told the person I needed to talk to won't be in until next week. But the DNR employee I talked said restoration might be tricky because the equipment needed to do the work might actually cause more damage.
So the Foothills is facing another quandary. Let's hope for the sake of the landscape that somebody solves this one.
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