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County struggles with ATV trail

The contentious issue of a 70-mile designated ATV trail in Becker County was tabled for 30 days Tuesday, after the Becker County Board heard from a roomful of residents who oppose the plan.

Two weeks ago, the board voted 4-1, with Commissioner Larry Knutson dissenting, to approve an agreement with the Minnesota DNR that would have allowed the county to be reimbursed in stages as the project proceeded.

But the board later that day rescinded its approval because the item had been added late to the county board agenda and had not been publicized prior to the meeting.

On Tuesday, some criticized the board for earlier acting without public input, but board Chairwoman Karen Mulari said that's why the board reversed itself and brought the issue back -- to provide for public feedback.

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

As originally proposed, the ATV and motorbike trail would have been located in North and South Round Lake Township, with the northern half within the boundaries of the White Earth Indian Reservation.

The latest plan puts about 10 percent of the trail in Clearwater County, with about 85 percent of the total on county tax-forfeited land and the rest on state land, said County Natural Resources Management Administrator Mark "Chip" Lohmeier.

Those who spoke were unanimously against the trail.

"The citizens are here today to tell you that our quality of life in northeastern Becker County is being threatened," said Ruth Bergquist, spokeswoman for the local group Citizens for Reasonable ATV Use.

"If Becker County commissioners vote to allow an experimental ... ATV/dirt bike trail to attract riders who will want to test their machine's power and their own driving abilities and put them amongst us, the existing problem of controlling rogue drivers will not be solved.

"This faulty trail concept will only exacerbate the problem, not solve it."

Winona LaDuke, director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, said her group opposes the trail for cultural reasons -- there are wetlands, medicinal herbs that grow near wetlands and family burial sites throughout the area of the proposed trail, she said. She is also concerned that ATV riders will not share the traditional Ojibwe respect for nature.

"We're interested in tourism," she said, "but it rests on environmental protection of lakes, of nature, of our county," she said. "We should have a collaborative effort where we say 'this is what we want our county to look like in 50 years.'"

Bad Medicine Lake resort owner Mark Veronen compared the ATV trail plan to the "Minnesota stadium debacle. The Metrodome is in place, but the Twins, Vikings and Gophers all need their own."

The state needs to make better use of existing trails before spending money on dedicated ATV trails, he said.

"Unless the DNR modifies the contract to use existing trails, we urge you to just say no to this agreement," he told commissioners.

Forest Township Supervisor Ray Vlasak also spoke against the trail.

"Why create more trails when we can't take care of the ones we have now," he said. "There are good, responsible ATV riders, but there are also bad riders. It's not just a few (bad) apples as the ATV clubs would have you believe."

Commissioner Knutson, who represents the district, opposes the trail, in part because local support isn't there.

Commissioner Barry Nelson agreed, saying he would be hard-pressed to support a trail opposed by the affected townships and the White Earth tribe.

Simply approving the DNR contract does not mean the trail will be built, but it will allow the county to seek compensation for expenses associated with the project, Mulari said. It could also help the county get a handle on ATV use.

ATV riders in Becker County are now free to go pretty much wherever they want on public land: They can ride on county tax-forfeited land and forest roads.

One reason for a trail system dedicated to ATVs and dirt bikes would be to rein in those free-wheeling ways, Mulari said.

Dedicated trails would carry state maintenance funds, like snowmobile trails, and would allow the county to restrict ATV use in other areas.

"Without a designated trail system, our hands as a county board are tied," Mulari said.

Commissioner Bob Bristlin said the county should focus its efforts on existing resources and not worry about building a dedicated trail.

"People can already go anywhere they want because there are no restrictions," he said. "Some of those areas shouldn't have any motorized vehicles in them."

Commissioner Harry Salminen urged county officials to make a decision based on facts.

"I would not like to see that area (of the county) ruined," he said. "I would like to see information so I could make an intelligent choice, not an emotional choice," he added.

On Tuesday the Becker County Board voted to table the issue until Aug. 22.

An attempt by Knutson to table it for 90 days failed, largely because Nelson believed a delay that long would "kill" the project.

Nelson -- who supports the concept of a designated ATV trail -- said he wants a chance to assess the true level of tribal and township support on the matter.

Regardless of what happens with the 70-mile trail, Lohmeier said Becker County, the DNR and other agencies are beginning the process of designating motorized trails in county and state forest land.

The county has three state forests within in boundaries -- Two Inlets, White Earth and Smokey Hills. The forest will be categorized as "closed" or "limited" to motorized vehicles, including ATVs, Lohmeier said.

In either case, system forest roads and minimum maintenance roads will remain open to motorized traffic.

But the access trails, "the little offshoots off those roads used to go in and get timber out, those little dead-end trails that end in woods," Lohmeier said,

"We look at those to see if we should connect portions for motorized use. If not, we'll close them down."

The process took about a year in Hubbard County, and resulted in perhaps 40 percent of those trails being closed to motorized traffic -- mostly because they went through wetlands or private property, Lohmeier said.

The DNR is now in the process of putting up "open" signs on trails open to motorized vehicles.

By legislative mandate, state forests south of Highway 2 (which connects Bemidji, Grand Forks, N.D. and Duluth) are to be categorized as either "closed" or "limited."

That made it difficult to close forests, so the law has been modified to allow more flexibility in closing or opening different parts of a state forest to motorized traffic, Lohmeier said.

As for county land outside state forests, county boards can develop their own rules for motorized vehicle use.

State-owned land outside state forest are also expected to be categorized during the process, which starts in Becker County Tuesday with a meeting between Lohmeier and DNR officials.