Environmentalists call Wis. anti-ATV
vote big victory
by Robert Imrie
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
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
"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
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
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,
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,"
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