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County puts ATV trail on hold

Bogged down in internal dissent and external opposition, a county committee charged with mapping out a 70-mile trail for all terrain vehicles and dirt bikes has temporarily given up the job.

The two county commissioners who sit on the committee -- Karen Mulari and Larry Knutson -- pushed for the break because they said the deeply divided committee was just spinning its wheels.

The proposed ATV trail would be located in North and South Round Lake Township, with the northern half within the boundaries of the White Earth Indian Reservation.

Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor sent the county a letter of opposition to the trail. The tribe is concerned about possible conflicts with tribal hunting season and damage to native plants and herbs, among other things, commissioners said.

Commissioner Harry Salminen said he would hate to jeopardize the county's close working relationship with the tribe on issues like law enforcement and public health by forcing through the ATV trail.

Commissioner Bob Bristlin suggested locating the trail elsewhere.

"You're going to have the same opposition wherever you go, whether or not you're on the reservation," Salminen said.

Township officials are also opposed to the pilot project, which is to be built on county tax-forfeited land and funded with $300,000 in state money.

They are concerned about the ATV trail crossing a township road -- busy on weekends -- that is used to access Many Point Boy Scout Camp.

And they are concerned about environmental damage.

The ATV trail would be engineered to shed water and avoid ruts, and designed to force drivers to use moderate speed.

But township officials are skeptical that the trail will keep its shape and stay dry -- they'd like to see the county first fix up existing, rutted ATV trails, such as those in the Two Inlets area, and see how those trails hold up.

To protect itself from accident liability, the township will likely pass an ordinance banning ATVs from township roads if the 70-mile trail is approved by the county board. That would mean the trail would have to tunnel under township roads.

ATV riders need a place to ride, and it makes sense to create a designated trail and then act to keep them out of sensitive areas, Mulari said in an interview.

If the designated trail is shot down, area residents will regret it several years from now when ATV use on non-maintained trails and other areas of tax-forfeited land becomes a big problem, she predicted.

Some residents in the area worry that ATV riders would stray off the designated trail and damage sensitive forest land and wetlands.

The ironic thing, noted Bristlin, is that county tax forfeited land is now open to ATVs use. Many ATV riders already use logging roads and other trails in Round Lake Township.

Mulari said those undesignated trails have no money attached for maintenance, which is part of the reason they end up in such bad shape.

A designated trail would carry state money for maintenance, much like designated snowmobile trails, so they wouldn't turn into rutted sinkholes.

Commissioner Barry Nelson spoke in favor of the trail.

"ATVs do have a big economic impact on the area, I'd like us to go forward with it -- we should meet with the tribe and township to try to alleviate their concerns."

Nelson believes the committee should not be allowed to hijack a county board decision.

"The committee's charge is to present the best possible trail to the board," he said. "We have to decide the trail will exist until this board decides otherwise."

Bristlin agreed, adding that it might make sense to designate smaller lengths of ATV trail around the county, rather than putting it all in one township.

The 2003 legislation that funded the pilot project requires a continuous 70-mile looped trail, said Chip Lohmeier, natural resources management director for the county.

The legislation also requires the project to be completed by April 2007.

"If we don't get it (the state funding) somebody else will," Lohmeier said. "This is supposed to be a trial balloon to see if ATV trails in the state are sustainable and maintainable."

Lohmeier will meet with DNR officials and the legislator who penned the law, Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, to see if the law can be amended to allow for a shorter trail or several trails in different parts of the county. He will also ask about extending the timeline.

The committee, which has held several contentious meetings, will get together again as soon as possible after county officials meet with tribal and township leaders to address their concerns.

Regardless of what happens with the 70-mile trail, Lohmeier said Becker County next year will begin the process of designating ATV trails in state forest land. The county has three state forests within in boundaries -- Two Inlets, White Earth and Smokey Hills.

"We'll have to decide which trails should remain open to ATVs," he said. "Everything else will be considered closed."