DNR meeting on ATV trail designations draws crowd

COTTON -- Off-highway vehicle enthusiasts and local residents filled the community center here Wednesday evening to help chart the future of trails in the Cloquet Valley State Forest.

COTTON -- Off-highway vehicle enthusiasts and local residents filled the community center here Wednesday evening to help chart the future of trails in the Cloquet Valley State Forest.

About 100 people attended a meeting sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in cooperation with St. Louis County.

Many of the questions and comments focused on whether the forest should be designated as "managed' or "limited.''

Under the DNR's current proposal, the forest would be designated as managed. Off-highway vehicles could operate on more than 870 miles of routes and trails within the forest. Several hundred miles of other trails now used by off-highway vehicles would be posted as closed.

Managed designation is favored by OHV/ATV enthusiasts because it allows travels on all trails and back roads unless they are specifically posted as closed, as it is now.


Limited designation is favored by some local residents, conservation groups and groups representing professional foresters and wildlife managers. It requires off-highway vehicles to remain only on trails officially marked as open, and it's generally considered more restrictive.

Some property owners said off-highway vehicle use is causing erosion along roads and trails and questioned whether the DNR could truly designate any trails off roadways that could handle "sustainable'' off-highway vehicle traffic.

But some off-highway vehicle supporters said closing routes now used by ATVs is unfair to riders who operate responsibly.

"Horses, motorbikes and hikers leave a heavier footprint than ATVs,'' said Dewey Rudolph of Ely Lake. "Look at the portages in the Boundary Waters. They're mud pits.''

Others complained that the plan doesn't include new, long-range trails for off-highway vehicle riders. But DNR officials said that wasn't the job lawmakers assigned them when classifying state forests.

"We weren't given a mission to go out and build new trails,'' said Craig Engwall, northeastern regional director for the DNR. "Instead, it was our job to go out and inventory existing'' routes used by off-highway vehicles and determine which ones can continue to support traffic without damaging the forest or causing other problems.

DNR officials said officially designated, long-range off-highway vehicle trails will come from a later process when local clubs, funded by state grant-in-aid money, will propose and build trails between state, county and national forest routes. Off-highway vehicle supporters hope to make an interconnected trail system similar to the state's snowmobile trail system.

"It will be up to the grant-in-aid clubs to connect the dots when we're done with this [forest designation] process,'' said Brian McCann, DNR division of trails and waterways project leader. Any new or connecting trail must go through the state's environmental review process.


Some residents of rural areas near the trail said OHV-caused damage already is an issue and that a limited designation would make it easier for DNR conservation officers to police the area.

Engwall noted that the joint DNR-county effort has taken more than a year to compile but won't end when the DNR commissioner makes a decision.

"This is one step in a long-term process.'' Engwall said. "We're going to have continued review'' after a designation decision has been made.

Some people expressed concern that closing any trails in the forest may affect access for disabled people who want to enjoy the woods. But DNR officials said that special permits can be issued to private property owners who must cross forest land and to disabled people to cross forest land even if it is closed to other OHV operators.

Another meeting is scheduled tonight in Rice Lake Township. The DNR commissioner is expected to make a decision on designation by September.

The St. Louis County Board can designate county-managed land within the forest as commissioners see fit, although they have signaled that they will match the DNR-managed designation to avoid confusion.

The 327,000-acre Cloquet Valley State Forest north of Duluth includes about 231,517 acres of county land, the highest concentration of county land in any northern state forest.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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