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Letter: Becker County doesn't need any more ATV trails

In the coming weeks the Becker County Board is scheduled to make some important decisions regarding future recreational use of thousands of acres of tax-forfeited lands administered by the county. These lands provide valuable recreation opportunities for hiking, hunting, camping, nature watching and a whole host of other outdoor recreation activities. The land has expansive wildlife habitat including rich plant communities, important wetland and bog complexes and lakes, all valuable natural resource assets for Becker County. More recently, the forest areas have experienced growing utilization for motorized recreation such as snowmobiling and joy riding of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

In 2007, the Becker County Board refused a DNR grant offer to establish a 70-mile ATV trail on tax-forfeited land, largely in response to citizen, township and White Earth Reservation concerns for adverse impacts. Subsequently, the Becker County Board established an OHV Policy Committee to study the issues, but the work of this committee was suspended before it could produce much useful information to guide county policy-makers on these issues. Consequently, the Board has not received much of the vital information it will need to make informed decisions about ATV use of public lands.

This past year, a defining study on socio-economic and environmental impacts of recreational ATV use was published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), one of the most credible and respected federal resource management research agencies. The complete USGS study can be found at The study concluded that the adverse impacts of OHV's on society and the environment were "diverse" and "potentially profound."

ATV tires compact soils, increase runoff resulting in erosion and sedimentation polluting wetlands, streams and lakes. The aggressive tread and common aggressive riding style of ATV users destroyed soil structure and loosened topsoil while crushing plants and destroying nests and burrows of animals. ATV trails fragmented habitat and dispersed wildlife. The study found that non-native invasive species, especially spotted knapweed, are effectively introduced and spread by ATVs. Natural areas damaged by OHV/ATV traffic were found to be difficult and expensive to repair, and the restoration of these areas took many years and recovery was incomplete.

Significant ATV air pollution included exhaust fumes, dust and noise. Noise pollution is significant because when revved and/or driven aggressively, ATVs can be heard at great distances -- up to and over two miles away.

Credible studies conducted by qualified outdoor recreation experts have clearly identified ATV activity as not only highly competitive with but very antagonistic to every other land based outdoor recreation activity except snowmobiling. These studies clearly show that overlapping of motorized and non-motorized outdoor recreation areas causes dissatisfaction and even discourages other forms of recreation altogether. Some comparative studies have found that tourists visiting an area to view wildlife spend about 20 percent more per day on food, lodging, and equipment than ATV'ers. This would indicate that Becker County may be risking a net economic loss in this trade-off if it caters to motorized recreation by developing ATV trails. Furthermore, this loss of traditional tourist dollars would occur on top of increased costs to repair damage from ATVs to public infrastructure (roads and ditch rights-of-way) not to mention the environmental degradation now clearly attributed to this sport.

Still, demand for ATV use areas is growing; OHV users are insistent on achieving assumed rights to use their machines on public lands and are assisted in reaching goals to access public land by a powerful political lobby, especially here in Minnesota. ATV enthusiasts are very vocal, and often their demands overshadow other outdoor recreational users' desire to use the same public lands. ATV trail advocates often attribute damage claims to a few renegade or "cowboy" type riders. To the contrary, the adverse social, economic and environmental impacts described in the USGS and other studies are effects of law-abiding OHV trail riding activities. While all across the county various efforts to curtail renegade riding have proven unsuccessful, studies have shown that even if an effective enforcement system were found to corral the "cowboy riders" and enforce trail riding rules effectively, the adverse effects described above would still occur.

In view of studies demonstrating that the adverse impacts of ATV recreational trail development are significant and inevitable, the Becker County Board must use utmost care in its decision whether to provide even more access to Becker County public lands. Currently in Becker County, there are over 120 miles of government sanctioned and tax-payer supported ATV trails in the Smoky Hills and Two Inlets State Forests with even more connector trails leading to the Paul Bunyan State Forest. Unfortunately, to date, no effort has been made to tally the adverse effects described in the USGS and other studies are occurring from these ATV trails that already exist in Becker County.

Becker County Board members must keep in mind that all the registered ATV riders state-wide represent only 5-7 percent of the public who use public lands for outdoor recreation. Accordingly (and ignoring the adverse impacts for the moment), Becker County might be justified in allocating public lands proportionately between the incompatible forms of recreation (5-7 percent for ATV's and the balance for other activities). The existing Smoky Hills/Two Inlets area trail probably far exceeds this allocation already. However, if the Board does set aside any additional public land for OHV/ATV trails, the Board must do this with full awareness that they are literally sacrificing the overall environmental quality of this area for the benefit of very few.

Furthermore, any public lands so designated for motorized sports will be rendered unattractive for virtually all other forms of land based recreation. Just where in Becker County this additional parcel of sacrificial public land might be remains to be determined. -- Willis Mattison for Becker County Citizens for Responsible ATV Use, Osage