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DNR to designate forest trails

Change is coming to the three state forests in Becker County.

Starting in 2009 (if the process stays on schedule) ATVers, dirt bike riders and other motorized vehicles will no longer be able to ride anywhere they like on state forest land -- as they now can unless there are signs specifically posted to keep them out.

Instead, trails will be considered closed to motorized vehicles unless signs are posted saying they are open.

The reversal is being recommended by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, whose field team of specialists just completed about six months worth of work on trail surveys of the White Earth, Smokey Hills and Two Inlets state forests.

The DNR will recommend that all three state forests be reclassified as "limited" access forests -- which means trails will be open to ATVs and dirt bikes only if signs say they are open.

Currently, the forests are classified as "managed" access, meaning ATVs and dirt bikes can go anywhere on state (and county) land, as long as signs aren't posted keeping them out.

The State Legislature has decided that only state forests north of Highway 2 -- which connects Grand Forks, Bemidji, Grand Rapids and Duluth -- can keep their "managed" status. South of Highway 2, state forest land must be classified as either "limited" or "closed" to motorized vehicles.

(For the purposes of this story, snowmobiles don't count as "motorized vehicles" and can go most anywhere in all state forests).

Becker County has been working closely with the DNR to match trail designations on county tax-forfeited land with state trail designations. The county has land within state forests as well as along its borders.

The White Earth tribal conservation department and surrounding counties have also been actively involved in the process, although the tribe is not going to match trail designations and may not classify its land at all, said Bill Johnson, environmental planner with the DNR's Division of Trails and Waterways.

He appeared before the Becker County Board Tuesday to brief commissioners on the forest designation process. County Land Manager Chip Lohmeier was with him. Here are the recommendations.

Smokey Hills State Forest

There's very little county tax-forfeited land within the boundaries of the Smokey Hills State Forest. The middle section is more than half privately owned, and state lands make up most of the northern and southern thirds.

There are 67 total miles of inventoried roads and trails in the forest, with 37 miles proposed for ATV and off-highway motorcycle routes (including 8.5 miles of exclusive ATV/motorcycle trails.)

About 28 miles of forest roads are suitable for trucks and off-road vehicles. No trails will be designated exclusively for four-wheel drive pickups and similar off-road vehicles.

Almost all the trails are existing paths, but a half-mile of new walking trail is proposed, and 1.5 miles of new ATV trail.

There will be 2.5 miles of existing trails permanently closed because of their sensitive nature. These will be gated or bermed.

There will be 7.6 miles of designated walking trails and 7.6 miles of non-motorized trails for hiking, horseback riding and similar uses.

In the northwestern third of the forest, there will be a large area mostly off-limits to motorized vehicles, even during the hunting season. Vehicles will have to stick to the main roads and will not be allowed onto the trails. Hunters can still walk the trails, but will not be able to use ATVs.

Two Inlets State Forest

The northern half of the forest is mostly in private hands, the lower half mostly owned by the state. There is county tax-forfeited land in places around the park boundary.

There's about 72 miles of total inventoried roads and trails. The DNR proposes to allow ATV/dirt bike use on about 33 miles (including about 6 miles of exclusive ATV/motorcycle trails.)

Off-road vehicles can travel on 27 miles of existing state forest roads and minimum maintenance roads.

There will be about 10 miles of designated walking trails and 10 miles of non-motorized trails for hiking, horseback riding and similar uses. About a mile of existing trail will be permanently closed and about a half-mile of new non-motorized trail will be built.

Like Smokey Hills, no trails will be designated exclusively for four-wheel drive pickups and similar off-road vehicles.

And like Smokey Hills, there will be a large area where trails (not main roads) will be off-limits to ATVs and other motorized vehicles, even during the hunting season.

That area is around the Two Inlets village and Indian Creek area, due to the existence of wetlands and endangered plant life on reservation land in that area.

Those areas where motorized vehicles will not be allowed even for hunting are being established based on social, environmental and recreational resources, Johnson said.

White Earth State Forest

This forest is much more of a mish-mash of conflicting land ownership. The forest lies in the counties of Becker, Mahnomen and Clearwater, and within its county line, Becker County actually owns much more land than the DNR. The White Earth tribe owns large sections in Mahnomen County.

"This is a large area -- much larger than what we were dealing with in the Smokey Hills and Two Inlets," Johnson said. "We believe we can align (the trails) pretty well," between DNR and county land, he added. He said Lohmeier and other county officials have been very cooperative throughout the process.

There are 109 miles of trail and roads inventoried in the White Earth State Forest, including about 40 miles for ATVs and dirt bikes (a little over 3 miles will be exclusively ATV/motorcycle trail) and 36 miles of forest roads and minimum maintenance roads suitable for off-road vehicles.

There is a lot of county tax-forfeited land outside the forest boundaries, and Lohmeier said that land has undergone a trail inventory too.

"We want to make sure there's not a sudden change," he said. "When you're out there on the trails, most people are not aware whether they're on state or county land."

Although tribal members are not subject to most DNR regulations, Johnson said a cooperative law enforcement agreement with the tribe will allow DNR officers to turn tribal members over to tribal conservation officers to be charged or cited.

"You're taking away routes from white hunters that you're not taking away from Native Americans," said Commissioner Karen Mulari. "It's not that I don't want Native Americas to be able to hunt, I just don't want to pit neighbor against neighbor -- it just creates problems," she added.

Johnson said the DNR has limited authority to enforce its rules on tribal members on the reservation.

In addition to the three state forests, the new DNR classification plan will apply to 34 miles of inventoried trails and roads on state-owned "scattered land" in Becker County.

Some of those trails will be "proactively closed" to protect sensitive areas, Johnson said.

"People need to be aware of those kinds of changes when it's something they've been used to doing for years," Mulari said.

"Absolutely, we agree," Johnson said.

Even so, no DNR public meetings are scheduled for Becker County.

Because Becker is part of an eight-county, six-forest district, three public meetings on the DNR forest recommendations will be held July 9-13 in Menahga, Mahnomen and Bemidji.

Along with DNR officers, Lohmeier will attend those meetings to speak to questions about trails on county tax-forfeited land.