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Local opposition doomed 70-mile ATV trail

Inflexibility on the part of the lawmaker who sponsored the bill and opposition on the part of the locals sealed the fate of a 70-mile ATV/dirt bike trail in Becker County, according to one opponent of the project.

"That killed it," said Mark Veronen, owner of Veronen's resort on Bad Medicine Lake.

The county board voted 5-0 not to enter into a contract with the DNR to proceed with the trail at a meeting Tuesday at the Becker County Courthouse.

At the meeting, which occurred in a packed third-story courtroom, State Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, was asked why he was not willing to go back and amend his bill to make it more workable for the county.

"Why (does the trail have to be completed by) April 1, 2007? Why a continuous 70-mile loop? Why can't we lower that?" asked Commissioner Larry Knutson, a strong opponent of the project.

"When you take a significant four-hour trip from the Twin Cities to northern Minnesota, you don't want to ride the same 12-mile trail over and over again, it gets a little boring," Hackbarth answered. "Even a 35-mile trail would be limited."

County Administrator Brian Berg said the unanimous vote Tuesday by the county board not to enter into an agreement with the DNR means that the 70-mile ATV trail will be built in some other county.

Becker County's proposal was selected by the DNR ahead of several other counties, but plans to build the trail largely on tax-forfeited land in North and South Round Lake Townships brought out strong local resistance.

"The mobilization of the various factions that were against it," was key, Veronen said, pointing to Citizens for Responsible/Reasonable ATV Use, which mobilized local residents against the trail.

Another factor was that the state and county are starting a forest reclassification process in Becker County that will result in a number of current trails being either closed or designated for motorized use. The process is expected to take about a year.

"The fact that that trail designation process would have come out after the agreement with the DNR (on the 70-mile trail) didn't make a lot of sense to a lot of folks," Veronen said. "There are so many miles of trails that can be used as opposed to new construction."

Some of the testimony from Hackbarth and ATV enthusiasts in the Twin Cities also came off as insensitive, though local ATV club members generally acquitted themselves well.

Woods-n-Wheels ATV Club member Jeff Moritz said the group now has about 150 members. The club trains youth in safe ATV use and promotes responsible driving among its members, he said.

"Our members are your neighbors," he said.

Commissioner Barry Nelson, considered the swing vote by some, said in an interview Friday that he voted the way he did because of the strong local opposition to the project.

That opposition included the townships of North and South Round Lake and Forest, the White Earth tribal government, the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge and a number of local residents.

"I would have liked to approve it to the next level, laying out a route, and seeing what it looked like from there," he said. The route would likely have been a combination of existing trails and new construction.

But in the end, he and other commissioners believed the local opponents would not have been won over.

"I don't think we would have convinced anyone to change their mind, so it was a good time to let it go," he said.