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Environmentalists call Wis. anti-ATV vote big victory
by Robert Imrie
Associated Press

A resounding vote against allowing all-terrain vehicles on county land in an area of northern Wisconsin known as a recreational playground was hailed by some as a key victory for protecting forests and lakes. It could have significance across the state, they say.

Others were more cautious Friday about reading too much into the anti-ATV vote in Vilas County.

"It is a little concerning," said Karl Brooks, state Department of Natural Resources ATV administrator.

"I am not naive to sit here and say everything is hunky-dory. There is a growing movement for quiet sports. And we have talked with our ATV user groups about it. They recognize that as well. It is a trend that is coming."

So-called quiet sports include hiking, horseback riding and dogsledding.

In a nonbinding referendum in Vilas County Tuesday, 63 percent of voters said they wanted ATVs banned in county forests and on county-owned land, which includes road rights of way.

The Vilas County vote came a week after a federal judge in Wyoming ordered the National Park Service to stop implementing a plan to cut the number of snowmobiles allowed in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks this winter. The plan called for an all-out ban on the machines next winter. Vilas County, which is about 70 miles north of Wausau, is a well-know recreation area.

The Vilas County dispute came up as part of efforts to develop a 40-mile ATV trail through the county. The issue became so contentious that the county board ordered the referendum.

"The people spoke. It is pretty significant, I would think," said Larry Stevens, the county forester.

Nearby counties of Langlade, Clark and Lincoln have allowed pretty extensive ATV trail systems, he said.

Jim Wise, spokesman for Environmentally Concerned Citizens of the Lakeland Area, which opposes the proliferation of ATVs, said the vote sends a clear message that when voters are given a choice between protecting public lands or allowing ATVs, they strongly favor protecting forests and lakes.

If a conservative, rural county that touts itself as a snowmobile haven rejects ATVs, then it is quite possible that they aren't welcome anywhere else where the voters have a choice, Wise said.

Opposition to allowing ATVs on county land centered on environmental damage the machines cause.

Randy Harden, Wisconsin ATV Association president, and Russ Ehnes, executive director of the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council, did not immediately return telephone messages Friday for comment.

Vilas County corporation counsel Martha Milanowski said her county's referendum regarding ATVs was believed to be the first of its kind in Wisconsin.

The county board does not have to follow the results but the vote was pretty clear, she said.

The number of ATVs being used in Wisconsin is growing dramatically, in part because recent winters have dampened snowmobile riding because of a lack of widespread snow.

There were 176,087 ATVs registered with the DNR as of February 2003, compared with 100,005 in 1999, said Larry Freidig, manager of a DNR program that provides state grants to local governments to maintain ATV and snowmobile trails. The grants are financed primarily with gasoline taxes and registration fees.

A year ago, the DNR had 208,513 snowmobiles registered, compared with 243,382 in 2001, he said.

About 30 local governments participate in the grant program to maintain ATV trails, most of them counties, Freidig said.

This winter, there are about 4,000 miles of ATV trails in Wisconsin that qualify for the grants and about 1,400 miles in the summer, he said.

ATV clubs across the state are working to expand the trail system, he said.

Wisconsin's snowmobile trail system, which has been in development since the 1970s, encompasses about 19,000 miles of trails, nearly 80 percent of it on private property, Freidig said.

Stevens said snowmobiles are more accepted in Vilas County because they travel over frozen and covered ground, causing less damage; snowmobile riding is limited to a handful of months; and people are inside during winter, less mindful of the noise from the machines.

"People in summertime are outside all the time. Of course, ATVs are going to be there throughout the year," he said.

Brooks said there have been some anti-ATV movements in other states, but he doubted the Vilas County vote would slow efforts to develop trails, particularly in Wisconsin.

"We have to find a place for them to go," he said.

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