It shouldn't have been allowed to come to this.
That was my conclusion after touring the Foothills State Forest with Steve Stephan last week.
Stephan, who owns 400 acres adjoining the popular state forest in Cass County, doesn't like what's become of his neighborhood, and neither would you. Erosion scars the landscape in many places, grass is torn from its roots, shrubbery is flattened, full-size oaks, some 50 years or older, are toppled over, the direct or indirect result of irresponsible ATV riding.
The cumulative effect of hundreds of ATVs ripping through the forest isn't pretty. Where one machine goes another soon follows, creating tire ruts that deepen over time. Ruts go downhill -- plenty of hills in aptly named Foothills State Forest -- rain falls, water flows through ruts, turning small ruts into big ruts. Big ruts channel more and more rainwater, leading to erosion.
The erosion caused by ATVs removing native vegetation is most readily seen where trails go down hills. Rainwater flows down the hills and is channeled through the ruts, which deepen over time.
DNR sees erosion, concludes trail must be closed. Fence is installed, but ATV riders ignore it. DNR comes back with chainsaw and fells trees over trail. Mature oaks laying on the ground will stop even an ATV.
But riders simply find another route and the process is repeated. This time the trail goes through a wetland, churning the soft soil into mud. To clean their machines riders run through deeper water where most mud comes off, along with oil, gas and exhaust residue -- just the ingredients our beleaguered wetlands need.
No, it shouldn't have been allowed to come to this. Public land belonging to everyone is being destroyed by renegade ATV riders. The Foothills is but one example. Minnesota law on where and how ATVs can operate on public lands haven't had much effect, making it almost certain the machines will leave their mark elsewhere. Coming to a state forest near you.....
Trails in Foothills State Forest fall under the "managed" classification, meaning they're open to ATVs unless posted as closed. Some have been closed because of the aforementioned ills, but signs are ignored. Overland travel in state forests was closed by the last Legislature, but outlaw riders apparently heed the Legislature with as much respect as they heed "Trail Closed" signs. Part of the problem is that most riders don't know if they're on state or county land. Foothills is a patchwork of both.
A three-part attempt to stop ATVs from passing through a wetland. First a sign went up, then a log was placed over the trail and finally a fence.
DNR enforcement can't be everywhere at once. In the early weeks of spring the officers had a strong presence in the Foothills, but when fishing season opened they all but disappeared, I'm told. More officers won't be added to the force any time soon because of budget cuts.
Trail plans that will regulate where ATVs can be ridden are mired in a bureaucratic tangle that includes state and county officials and a citizen's task force. Even the courts have become involved and the Legislature eventually will have its say, too.
When the Legislature mandated that a portion of the money spent on ATV purchases and licenses be used to develop a trail system that job fell to the DNR. The plans have been slow to come, partly because Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation took the DNR to court over when environmental assessments of its trail plans had to be done. MRR said the assessments should be done in the planning stages. DNR said it would be premature to study proposed trails that might never be built. As might be expected, the court recently issued a split decision, saying the DNR must do environmental assessments on eight of its projects, including the proposed project in the Foothills, but that other DNR trail plans elsewhere are not subject to environmental review until they are actual projects.
Got all that?
One method in which the DNR has tried to discourage ATV riders from using trails is to fell trees over the trails.
One thing is certain: the trail system will be on public land, for a private citizen would never consign his or her property to the abuse taking place in the Foothills. There's the rub. The Foothills and all state forests belong to everyone. If you wouldn't allow an ATV to rip up your yard why would you allow it to rip up a state forest?
I once cross-country skied in the Foothills, but I better not try it again unless there's a 2-foot base of snow. That's what's needed to cover the rocks and ruts exposed and created by ATVs. I remember stopping in these woods on a snowy evening to listen to a pack of wolves howl. Wednesday evening I heard a pack of ATVs howl. For some reason it didn't have the same effect.
Stephan understands. "There's a nice fishing hole down there," he said, pointing to Spider Lake as we made our tour. "Used to go there in the summer to get away from it all. You should come back next summer and hear the ATVs."
Fairness forbids us from passing judgment on others. I don't ride an ATV for recreation but maybe you do. If you like to ride through the woods you have that right. But stay on the trail and obey the signs. I'll learn to live with the noise, as I've learned to live with the noise of snowmobiles on my cross country ski jaunts.
Therein lies the best hope for the present mess. If cross country skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers can all get along then ATV riders and non-riders have hope. A designated trail system is where it must start. An ATV lobbyist has pointed out that the present mess is comparable to the snowmobile mess of 25 years ago. A new and fast-growing recreational activity that had problems with irresponsible riders eventually was controlled by the creation of a trail system and riding clubs that policed their own members. Clashes between snowmobilers and non-snowmobilers have diminished.
Tim Browning, northern field operations manager in DNR trails and waterways, said there's a proposal to re-classify as "limited" the southern third of the Foothills. A limited classification would allow ATVs on posted trails only. Trails not posted as open would be off limits.
"That decision hasn't been made yet," Browning said.
Somebody make it and soon. The Foothills can't take much more abuse.
Yet even if every state forest was classified as limited would the problem go away? Probably not, for outlaws exist in every segment of the outdoors, be it hunting, fishing or trail riding. It's still the individual's responsibility to obey the law. As your parents said: you know the difference between right and wrong.
"What's happening here just isn't right," Stephan says as darkness falls on the Foothills.
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