New plans for how off-highway vehicles can be operated on state forest land is nearing completion by the DNR.
The "Off-Highway Vehicle Systems Plans" will be ready for public review by the end of the month. The plan for this region will guide the DNR's management of trails in the southern half of Cass County as well as Crow Wing and Wadena counties.
The plan is the result of a directive issued in 1994 by former DNR commissioner Rod Sando, who responded to a request by the Legislature to provide OHV users with riding trails after they accepted a voluntary tax on their vehicle registrations.
The planning process began at that time and gained momentum in the past two years with the formation of statewide OHV Systems Planning Teams. Each had 15 members, including 10 citizens and five DNR staff.
Parcels of land within each state forest will be designated as managed (OHVs allowed on all trails unless posted as closed), limited (OHVs allowed only on trails posted as open) or closed (no OHVs allowed other than highway-licensed vehicles on state forest roads).
Highlights from the plan for this region include:
-- Improvements to the trails in the Spider Lake area of the Foothills State Forest;
-- Opening the Moose River All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) trail in the Land O' Lakes State Forest to motorcycles;
-- Placing a seasonal restriction on a 6,400 acre parcel in the northern half of Land O' Lakes State Forest. OHVs will not be allowed from spring through late summer;
-- Creation of an OHV user site adjacent to the Cuyuna Recreation Area near Crosby.
In recent years OHV sales have exploded, especially in the ATV segment. Last year Minnesota had 21,073 first-year ATV registrations. Combined with the unexpired three-year tabs there are 110,395 ATVs registered in the state.
Evidence of ATV use is becoming more noticeable. The situation is comparable to the snowmobile boom of 30 years ago. When the machines became more reliable they were driven for longer distances and into places they previously couldn't reach. ATVs are at a similar evolutionary stage today.
DNR officials hope the new OHV plan will balance the needs of motorized recreationists with the needs of hikers, bird watchers, berry pickers and others who enjoy non-motorized pursuits.
"We've really made an effort to mesh everyone's interest," said Tim Browning, regional trails and waterways supervisor. "We've listened to loggers, horseback riders, fisheries and wildlife people, motorized and non-motorized users. All have been to the table."
Yet the plan has been criticized, most notably by members of Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation, whose slogan is "Minnesota's voice for peace and quiet." Two MRR members -- both of whom joined the organization after participating in the OHV planning meetings -- have drafted a minority report to state their opposition.
One of the draftees, Larry Wannebo, Manhattan Beach, said the report emphasizes three things: that more of the state forest in this region should be designated as limited, that motorized user groups should use some of their funds for enforcement and that the DNR should not open more lands to motorized use if it doesn't have enough staff to enforce the rules.
"The planning process focused on the user groups and not the ecosystem," said Wannebo, who owns an ATV but does not ride it for recreation. "I don't think it paid any attention to preserving these lands for future generations. I don't think it met with the DNR's original vision of what it wanted to accomplish.
"They picked the 10 members who sat on the committee and eight of them were motorized users. Is that balanced? Now the public gets a few days to read the plan. But will anybody comprehend a 20-page document in a two-hour hearing? Will they understand it and discuss it with other people?"
John Reynolds, Merrifield, assisted Wannebo in drafting the minority report. He said he quit attending the planning meetings so he would be on record as opposing the direction the plans were headed. He agrees with Wannebo that designating state lands as "managed" will lead to regulations that will be impossible to enforce.
"It is illegal," Reynolds said, "to ride an ATV or 4 x 4 truck into the riparian zone of a lake or to cause rutting and erosion. But a managed classification would make this nearly impossible to enforce. This is a statewide problem that will only get worse unless adequate enforcement is funded from the $2 million plus ATV fund."
Jack Olson, DNR natural resources planner, said, "Our plan does call for increased enforcement. In managed forests we looked at the amount of use they were getting. If we felt there was significant use occurring where it shouldn't be we reclassified the area as limited. In areas where there's less use we're relying on the riders to obey the rules and not cause environmental damage."
But Wannebo said the DNR is unrealistic if it thinks all OHV riders will obey the law.
"That's not human nature," he said. "A lot of them don't even want maintained trails. They want a challenge, the tougher the better. Cass County tried putting up signs to restrict travel and they've been torn down and ignored. And the logging roads won't be closed, which I think is a big mistake. ATV riders will go anywhere there's an opening."
Motorized interests on the planning committee were represented by, among others, Jeff Kinney, president of the local Rough Riders ATV club, and Brian Smude, president of the Northern Lites Off-Road Motorcycle Club. Both said they are satisfied with the new plan and that they will promote responsible riding within their respective clubs.
"This should help control riding at Spider Lake, which has had heavy use for years," Smude said. "I think this is a step in the right direction. We know some trails will be closed and that's fine. I'm a hunter, too, and I agree there should be areas that are closed to motorized vehicles."
Kinney said his 80-member club will work to police itself. "We've seen guys at Spider Lake riding where they're not supposed to and we've told them that," he said. "A lot of times they don't even know they're breaking the rules because the trails aren't marked. Now with established trails they will know where to ride and where not to."
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