On each of the past three weekends, I've gone to fish one of my favorite trout streams. Once there, however, concentrating on fishing has been difficult. On each of these visits I've discovered evidence of the passage of a four-wheeler (an all-terrain vehicle, or ATV). The driver has driven off the trail, smashing down vegetation, driven through the bed of the trout stream itself, left wheel scars on a long, steep, erosion-prone hillside next to the stream, and flattened a wooden barrier on which was mounted a sign prohibiting motorized travel.
As I have choked back anger over this disrespect for a unique local resource, and disregard for clearly posted rules, I have also begun to have serious doubts about the strategy by which local and state governments appear to be planning to manage off-highway vehicle (OHV) travel on public land. While most of the states bordering Minnesota have adopted a policy that keeps trails closed to OHV traffic unless specifically posted open, Minnesota is going in the other direction (with some notable exceptions), and declaring most trails open unless posted closed.
While it's true that Minnesota has more public land than some of its neighbor states, I'm not convinced that justifies adopting a basically unregulated policy. The term being used is "managed," but in my opinion it is, for all intents and purposes, just the opposite. Given the demonstrated willingness of some OHV riders, however small a minority, to drive in ways that are destructive, and to ignore clearly posted rules, it seems to me that we should be adopting a more protective strategy. That is, first examine trails to determine those areas least susceptible to damage, then post a certain percentage of those trails open to OHV use. If there is no open posting, it's clearly off-limits.
It should be added here that some organized OHV groups are peopled with very responsible riders, have backed rules that require on-trail riding only (despite some northern legislators' pushing for freedom to ride off-trail), and decry abusive riding as much as I do. But the policies that are being embraced across much of Minnesota lean not toward favoring environmental protection, but favoring a use whose impact has not been determined in many places, and has been proven damaging in others. The number of ATVs licensed in Minnesota is expected to grow at a rate of about 20,000 per year, by some estimates. That would approach a quarter million more ATVs in just over 10 years. This number doesn't even consider the use of trucks and sport utility vehicles that are used on such trails, and which are capable of doing even more damage than ATVS. Apart from actual environmental damage, there is also the issue of providing a reasonable amount of space where one doesn't have to hear, see or dodge such traffic.
Getting control of OHV use will not get easier as time goes by. If politicians and public officials defer taking a protective stand to future years and future leaders, the trail back may be longer and tougher than the one we would face now.
(Mike Rahn lives in Brainerd and is an avid outdoorsman.)
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.