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Great Lakes Article:

Thank you for your support in uniting the voice of Minnesotans for a healthy environment!

02/08/2002

- Groups, scientists, legislators, & business leaders blast DNR appeal of citizen victory-

A DNR decision to appeal a Cass County District Court order requiring the agency to assess environmental impacts of ATV, dirt-bike motorcycle, and four-wheel drive truck trails and scramble areas in North Central Minnesota has set off a storm of criticism across Minnesota. A diverse collaborative of legislators, recreation, environmental and conservation groups, business leaders and Minnesota scientists are demanding that the DNR not only accept but apply this ruling to its "Off-highway Vehicle System Plans" statewide.

Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation, MRR, the group leading the charge, has been documenting off-highway vehicle (OHV) problems and working to implement effective management of these machines. MRR Executive Director Jeff Brown, says "There is a place for everything when everything is in its place. Environmental assessment is an essential first step in determining what place off-highway vehicles might have in Minnesota's forests and parks, and on our trails and waterways. While the DNR has agreed to complete Environmental Assessment Worksheets on two ATV trails, it refuses to accept the court's order to consider the 'total effect ... each project [has as] part of the overall OHV system' and complete EAWs on its county, regional, and statewide OHV plans."

Brown says "The DNR's continual desire to escape environmental assessment of off-highway vehicle impacts brings into doubt the agency's ability to effectively manage these machines. Minnesotans deserve an explanation as to why the DNR refuses to accept the court order to complete comprehensive Environmental Assessment Worksheets on its OHV system plans." MRR challenges the fact that Minnesota stands alone among our neighbors in allowing open OHV access to 95% of our state forest lands. This open classification of Minnesota's state forests is an essential component of DNR OHV plans and requires the court ordered review.

Speaking on behalf of Minnesota's larger scientific community, Dr. Thomas F. Waters, Professor Emeritus, University of Minnesota, says "current DNR plans and projects have the potential for significant environmental impacts on Minnesota's streams, fisheries, and the larger environment. These potential impacts require thorough assessment". Dr. Waters is distinguished by his 40 year career studying the ecology of streams and rivers and is renowned for his many journal articles and books on this topic. Professor and mentor to numerous current DNR staff in the agency's Waters and Fisheries Divisions, Dr. Waters joins a chorus of others calling on the DNR to complete Environmental Assessment Worksheets on its off-highway vehicle plans statewide to avoid environmental damage. Dr. Waters leads MRR's science team.

Minnesota environmental and conservation groups echo these concerns. Char Brooker, with the Izaak Walton League says "in its decision to appeal the court order, the DNR is promoting motorized recreation without first protecting Minnesota's resources." Brooker notes that the "vast majority of hunters are walking hunters and do not use ATVs. These hunters see the need to assess environmental impacts from off-highway vehicles throughout our state forests". The Izaak Walton League's Dave Zentner points out "there is abundant evidence of severe environmental impacts from unrestricted use of ATVs in our forests. Minnesota's public lands deserve protection from recreational activity that denigrates our environment."

Ken Finch, Executive Director of Audubon-Minnesota, says his group is "especially concerned about the impacts ATVs, dirt-bike motorcycles, and four-wheel drive trucks are having on Minnesota's forests and other habitats. The fragmentation of forests and habitat disturbance from motorized corridors has the potential to negatively impact Minnesota's bird populations."

Business leaders are also concerned about the DNR's decision. Steve Piragis, CEO of Piragis Northwoods Company and Outfitters in Ely, says "the DNR appeal, if successful will hurt my business which depends on quiet, safe, and healthy trails and waterways sought by my customers." Piragis says ATVs travel unrestricted in Northern Minnesota and he is concerned that increasing encounters with these machines will turn Minnesotans off to visiting the Northwoods.

Representative Alice Hausman, the legislature's leading expert in motorized recreation problems speaks for a growing number of concerned legislators, saying "the DNR appeal is misguided and indicates that there are larger problems in Minnesota's management of motorized recreation on public land". Representative Hausman is calling on senior DNR officials to withdraw their appeal and apply the court's ruling to the DNR's statewide plans to develop a network of scramble areas and trails for off-highway vehicles. Representative Hausman says she is "deeply concerned that public monies are wrongly being spent to avoid environmental assessment of motorized recreation impacts and to fight Minnesota's citizens who had to turn to the courts to obtain it."

While the DNR has announced its appeal, it has yet to file with the Minnesota Court of Appeals in which a three judge panel would review the Cass County District Court decision. MRR's attorney, Jim Peters says: "the decision of Cass County District Court is consistent with Minnesota law and with the review that the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies routinely require on OHV planning. The DNR could comply with the court order and substantially complete the review process before any appeal is decided. Our DNR's decision to continue to fight basic review of the proposals is disappointing and demonstrates the DNR's isolation from other agencies in the Midwest region and nation."

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