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New off-highway vehicle laws mean big changes in state forests
by Tom Robertson
Minnesota Public Radio

Bemidji, Minn. - Audrey Eischens is an avid all-terrain vehicle rider. She lives near Park Rapids in northern Minnesota. She's fallen in love with her ATV.

Eischens says ATV riding has given her a reason to not be a couch potato. It's opened up the world of the outdoors. Eischens funnels her enthusiasm into involvement in a local riders club. She's on the board of directors of the All Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota.

ATV riders are battling a tarnished image. They've had virtually a free reign on most state forest trails. But some riders have strayed from the trails. They've plowed over trees and damaged sensitive wetlands. It's that environmental damage that caused a public outcry for more regulations.

The new state laws are just the opposite from existing regulations. Trails in most forests have been open to ATVs unless posted closed. The new law will make trails closed unless posted open. The change won't happen overnight. The Department of Natural Resources has until 2010 to review each state forest and decide which trails are appropriate for off-highway vehicles.

Audrey Eischens is happy with the change. It means rider groups will get something they've long been clambering for -- more dedicated trails.

"With forest by forest evaluations, there should be absolutely no reason why there aren't going to be enough trails for people to ride on," said Eischens. "And hopefully, that will give incentive for, especially local riders, to stay on those trails and not be going where they're not supposed to be going."

The new law is based mostly on a bipartisan Senate bill. Republican Senator Carrie Ruud of Breezy Point was one of the authors. She says the bill started out more restrictive, but was toned down in the final hours of negotiations. Ruud says she's disappointed some new education components were axed. A regulation requiring a responsible riders certificate for anyone riding on state lands was cut. Also eliminated was a provision that would have required machines to have decal stickers showing rules for riders.

Ruud says the new state regulations balance the interests of both riders and non-riders. She says most will agree something is better than nothing.

"I think you'll see that everybody is really excited that we got something done," Ruud said. "And maybe it's not the perfect vehicle yet, but we're so thrilled that we actually accomplished this, and in such a bipartisan manner."

Environmental groups are celebrating much of the new plan. But there's also some disappointment. Matt Norton, lobbyist for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, wanted lawmakers to create a permanent damage account. The account would have allowed individuals and local governments to submit a bill to the state for repair of environmental damage caused by illegal OHV riding.

"There is a temporary damage account that's set up, but that temporary damage account is almost certainly insufficiently funded," said Norton, "and for no good reason that I've seen, (it) has a sunset provision. And so after several years, it will no longer exist."

Norton says the state also desperately needs more enforcement officers to deal with the ATV problem. In Wisconsin, conservation officers cover an average of 400 square miles of territory. Some Minnesota officers are responsible for nearly 2,000 square miles.

Colleen Adam is one of only two DNR officers whose job focuses solely on OHV enforcement. Realistically, it's impossible for Adam to adequately cover her territory. It streches from central Minnesota, west to the Dakotas and north to the Canadian border. She relies on other officers to let her know when OHVs are causing problems.

Adam says the new laws will give her more power to do her job. She used to have authority only on state land. But lawmakers have extended that authority to include enforcement on county lands. It also creates civil penalties for violators. And local sheriffs and police officers can enforce those laws, too -- with an incentive. They keep the money they collect in fines. That money will fund their efforts to control riders. Adam says the most significant change on the ground will be designated areas for motorized recreation, and areas strictly for activities like hiking.

"Whether or not that designation is going to be enough for the user groups who claim they want more, I don't know," said Adam. "There's got to be a happy medium and we've got to try to come to a compromise. My own personal feeling is that a majority of the people really do want to comply with the laws and really do want to clean up the image."

Many people are relieved the state is moving to better manage OHVs. Roger Leuth, a retired DNR enforcement officer, stands in a ditch along a Hubbard County road. He sees an ATV trail stretching up a steep hill along the ditch, very near a wetland.

"The machines are crawling a fairly steep bank here," Leuth explains. "We're getting some pretty good erosion in here. There's virtually no vegetation left on the trail. As the years go by, it's going to get worse and worse unless something is done to stabilize that."

Leuth says he's seen much worse damage over the years. He's seen deep scars on the land. He's seen ATVs trudge through sensitive wetlands, turning them into big bowls of black mud soup. Leuth says the new regulations are welcome. But he says it really should have happened years ago. He partly blames his former employer.

"I don't think the DNR was near aggressive enough on this whole ATV issue," said Leuth. "We've got statewide planners and stuff, and guys in the field could see this coming. I wrote some letters and talked to some folks in the past, and I know other field people did. It just kind of fell on deaf ears."

Leuth says ATVs are destructive by their very nature. He says even innocent trail riding will change animal behavior patterns and cause damage to the environment. Leuth says the key is to educate riders on the potentially destructive power they have beneath them. And the state needs to tighten the vice on reckless riders. Leuth says even just a few of them can cause major damage. He says posting signs to close state forest trails is great. But there will always be those who want to go where they're not allowed.

"Show me a locked gate and I'll show you an ATV trail that goes around the end of it," he said. "And same thing with berms that forestry pushes up in front of these trails to limit traffic in there. Now we've got a nice four-wheeler trail right across the berm. These ATVs are just about impossible to fence out or keep out of areas."

The 2001 Legislature provided funding to create a youth ATV education program. It's mandated to start July 1. The DNR is working with the All Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota and local rider clubs to create the program.

Some 240 volunteers have been certified as trainers. The course includes home and classroom study, as well as behind-the-wheel safety. The class is for kids ages 12-16. It will be required for those kids to ride legally in Minnesota's state forests.

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