A common refrain heard at meetings pertaining to all-terrain vehicles and their operation on public land is the need for more enforcement. Without it, people say, any new laws will be useless.
But more enforcement will not curtail the destruction caused by irresponsible ATV riders. That must start with individual riders and clubs, who must do a better job of policing themselves or risk a big public relations backlash.
Surely some ATV violations go unchecked because nobody is there to observe the violation and write a ticket. The DNR's enforcement division remains under-staffed, with 31 conservation officer jobs and 23 field stations vacant statewide.
Locally, the situation is better. When Conservation Officer Jim Guida starts working in Brainerd on Sept. 8 field stations at Brainerd, Peqout Lakes, Crosslake, Ironton, Crosby, Aitkin and McGregor will all be staffed.
Yet I doubt ATV damage will lessen because a few more officers are in the field. The area population continues to grow. ATV sales continue to grow. Add it up and more people are looking for places to ride, increasing the chances that some will ride where they shouldn't.
ATVs can go almost anywhere and many riders like to test the limits of their machines. Two weeks ago Lt. Tom Provost cited four men for riding in the Mississippi River. Seems the river is a bit shallow north of Crow Wing State Park and the men, all between the ages of 22 and 30, were "ripping up the bank and riding in the river," Provost said.
Is the Mississippi about to join Merrifield, Crosslake, Fifty Lakes and Emily as the latest problem area? Let's hope not. The old river's been around a long time and deserves better. Same for the land, which today bears scars made by ATVs but which tomorrow can heal itself if left alone.
Reason dictates that most public land be made off-limits to ATVs, for reason dictates that we respect the land and respect begins with a light tread. The tread of an ATV isn't light. Are rutted and eroded landscapes the legacy we want to leave behind?
Designated ATV trails are needed and riders must learn to stay on those trails, just as snowmobilers have learned to stay on theirs. Some people won't like being told where to ride, but snowmobilers didn't like being told where to ride either and they seem to have adapted just fine.
The Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners has the power to establish dedicated ATV trails. Get on it, guys. The two informational meetings you've sponsored so far are a good start. Turnout has been good and the debate lively. But what end product will we get from all this? What legacy will you leave behind as commissioners?
Ditch riding is a big concern among people on both sides of the issue. Non-riders want ATVs out of ditches. Riders want to use them. But our present ditch system was designed to handle drainage from roads, not serve as ATV travel corridors. If ditches are to remain open to ATVs they must be made part of an official trail and re-designed to accommodate ATV travel.
But more important than any of the above are the actions taken by individual riders and riding clubs. Responsible riding must be the main tenet of each rider's personal code of conduct. Clubs must make it their primary policy.
At every ATV meeting we hear about that "2 percent of the riders who are making a bad name for all of us." If you ride responsibly and know someone who doesn't, do you have the guts to confront that person and turn in his or her license number?
If not you're part of the problem, not the solution.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.