Sportsmen’s coalition supports motorized trail limits in state forests and other public lands

Motorized trails facilitate incursions into prime wildlife habitat

DULUTH—An ad hoc coalition of hunting and angling groups formally endorses the Department of Natural Resources efforts to better manage off-highway vehicle (this includes 4 wheelers/ATVs, 4x4 trucks, off road motorcycles) use on public lands in Minnesota by closing motorized routes in state forests to protect traditional non-motorized uses, wildlife habitat, wetlands, and other sensitive areas, while leaving most routes open to motorized use. We collectively applaud the DNR for closing these habitat damaging motorized routes.

Specifically, the coalition of groups, which includes the Minnesota Division of the Izaak Walton League of America, Trout Unlimited, and the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, recognizes that the U.S. Forest Service has identified unmanaged ATV use as one of the top “four threats” to the health of our public lands. The group is worried that excessive motorized access to our state’s public lands is contributing to the rapid degradation of prime wildlife habitat and riparian/aquatic areas, and that ATV overuse and abuse has become commonplace, with little effort to limit the damage being done and enforce applicable laws.

The coalition notes that more than 83% of state wildlife managers say they have seen “resource damage to wildlife habitat” caused by ATVs, and 72% cited “disruption of hunters during hunting season” as negative impacts from off-road vehicles. The Department of Natural Resources states that, “It has been well established in Minnesota that ATVs are traversing wetlands on public lands, and that sediment from eroding slopes damaged by ATV traffic is entering wetlands and streams.”

We’re all for responsible access, but the 4,000 miles of Forest Service roads and 11,000-plus miles of state forest trails in Minnesota provide plenty of (in fact, far too much) motorized access. Studies show that on most public lands approximately 90 percent of users are non-motorized. Dan Heinz, a former district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, noted that visitors say by a 10-to-1 margin that they visit the forests for quiet. Meanwhile supply or opportunity, in terms of lands available in Minnesota, is close to three times greater for motorized than for non-motorized.

In the Cloquet Valley State Forest (CVSF), for example, forest lands open to ATVs total over 238,000 acres. Only 6 areas (less than 5% of the forest) totaling 18,701 acres are reserved for walk-in use by hunters and others.  In addition, motorized vehicles are allowed on 800 miles of forest trails and along the sides of all the county roads or on the roads where the ditches are unsuitable, on all township roads, on Forest Roads, and on Minimum Maintenance roads.  Without question, most of the CVSF and other state public lands are open to vehicles.

In addition, the planning process on the CVSF took 4 years and thousands of people participated.  Many compromises were worked out, and no stakeholders left feeling like they won.  But despite public feedback 10-to-1 in favor of greater restrictions on ATVs, the plan that was finally chosen gave up almost all of the forest to motorized recreation.

According to a 2000 Minnesota DNR “Awareness and Satisfaction Survey,” the statement that survey respondents disagreed with most was: “The DNR should establish more sites on public land for motorized off-road vehicle recreation.” During November 2007, an opinion survey of Cook County residents found that 71 percent of the population does not own an ATV and 60 percent of residents do not want the county promoted as a destination for ATV tourists. In addition, 53 percent favored closing a majority of public lands to ATV use.

According to former Department of Agriculture undersecretary Mark Rey, a growing population means there are “a lot more demands for recreation. And there is exponential growth of ATV use.” The nation is facing a “huge wave” of such growth, and land managers need to deal with it. Rey said that motorized advocates “will have to get used to some cuts in access.” Even Brian Hawthorn, land use director of the ATV industry-funded Blue Ribbon Coalition, says that “unlimited use [by off-roaders] is no longer appropriate.”

As sportsmen and women, we understand that healthy wildlife habitat, rivers, and streams are the foundation supporting the American pastimes of hunting and fishing. We believe there is a place for off-highway vehicle routes on public lands, but that greater controls and better enforcement are necessary in the face of growing human population and ever-more-powerful machines.

And we applaud the DNR for closing a limited number of motorized routes in our state forests to protect wildlife habitat, wetlands, and other sensitive areas for current and future generations of sportsmen and women and others. We end by quoting the great hunter-conservationist Theodore Roosevelt: “The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will.”

About Caitlin Thompson