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Plan to limit ATVs on frozen Voyageurs Park lakes makes waves

Park Service proposes banning ATVs on part of Rainy Lake and all of Namakan and Sand Point lakes.

ATV on ice
The National Park Service is proposing new restrictions on ATV use on the frozen surfaces of lakes within Voyageurs National Park.
Contributed / Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks

INTERNATIONAL FALLS — A plan by the National Park Service to limit all-terrain vehicles on the frozen surfaces of Voyageurs National Park lakes is rankling some local resorts, guides and anglers who say they need the vehicles when snowmobiles won’t work.

Voyageurs National Park officials recently announced the proposal to ban ATV and UTV vehicles in many areas and otherwise limit their use to within 300 feet of designated “ice roads” on the big, frozen lakes in the park.

But because the ice roads only cover a small portion of the lakes, critics say the vehicles are being shut out of most of the park.

“It would cut off 90% or 95% of Kabetogama from ice fishing when you can’t use a snowmobile,” said Tim Watson, a longtime Kabetogama resident and guide and former resort owner.

The proposal would not restrict snowmobiles in any way.


Watson said many local residents and resort owners planned to attend public hearings on the plan set for this week.

ATVs are often used by anglers and others during low-snow periods of winter, such as early ice in December and late ice in spring and during winters with little snow when snowmobiles won’t operate properly on the frozen lakes.

“We aren’t sure why they want to restrict ATVs when snowmobiles can still go anywhere on the lakes. … We’ve asked them if there’s been a problem with ATVs and they say no. We don’t know where this is coming from,” Watson added. “There’s a lot of unrest up here over this.”

Watson noted that the proposed restrictions have rekindled decades-old disputes over park authority, noting that Minnesota state law specifically says that state statutes govern activities on the waters of the park, not federal regulations.

Voyageurs National Park.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

The “Frozen Lake Surface Access and Use Plan,” as unveiled by park officials, would create a “moderate use” winter zone where ATVs/UTVs would be allowed on designated ice roads (along with trucks, SUVs, etc.) and within 300 feet of those roads but not in other areas. The two ice roads designated by the park are on western Rainy Lake and Kabetogama Lake.

The proposal also calls for the Park Service to begin charging for use of the ice roads, either a daily fee or annual pass, to cover the cost of plowing the roads.

The plan also would create a “low-use zone” for winter travel where all ATVs and UTVs would be banned entirely, covering the eastern two-thirds of Rainy Lake and all of Namakan, Sand Point and Mukooda lakes within the park.

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Since 1979, the NPS has plowed ice roads on Rainy Lake to provide a traditional mode of travel that was established prior to the creation of the park. Ice roads allow access to ice fishing locations and provide visitors with a unique way to experience the park in winter. Ice roads are established and maintained by park staff on Kabetogama and Rainy Lakes based on weather conditions, available staff and resources. Visitors to the park operate snowmobiles along a designated trail system on land and anywhere on lake surfaces.


“This planning effort aims to align park activities with established regulations and policies, while accommodating traditional access and activities to the extent feasible,” the Park Service noted in unveiling the proposal. The Park Service “is looking for public feedback on the preliminary proposal as well as other options for managing visitor use on frozen lake surfaces.”

Voyageurs official did not immediately return the News Tribune's request to comment on why the changes are proposed, but it appears the effort is aimed at bringing Voyageurs in line with nationwide restrictions on off-road vehicle use in national parks.

An increase in the number and weight of ice shelters on the frozen lake surface could have adverse impacts on safety, visitor experience and natural resources.
National Park Service

“Other than snowmobiles, the park does not currently have a plan that manages winter use, including access and use of the frozen lake surface,” the Park Service noted in unveiling the proposal. “Current park management of vehicles on frozen lake surfaces is not consistent with federal regulations governing the operation of vehicles off of park roads.”

The proposal also includes restrictions on where ice fishing shelters can be left unattended, and possible limits on the number of permanent shelters, and may also be an effort to stem the tide of on-ice recreational vehicles that have swept across other northern Minnesota lakes causing issues with garbage, human waste and crowding.

“Ice shelters have evolved from homemade shacks to campers that can be lowered onto the ice,” the Park Service noted in unveiling the proposal. “An increase in the number and weight of ice shelters on the frozen lake surface could have adverse impacts on safety, visitor experience and natural resources.”

Voyageurs — Minnesota's only national park — is located along the state’s northern border with Ontario and encompasses approximately 218,000 acres, including approximately 85,000 acres of water, consisting of 30 lakes of varying sizes. There are four major lakes within the park boundary. Kabetogama Lake is located fully within the park, while Rainy Lake, Namakan Lake and Sand Point Lake are located only partially within the park boundaries.

The park was established Jan. 8, 1971, and the park’s enabling legislation allows for winter recreation access, including the use of snowmobiles, but doesn’t mention ATVs, which were not common at the time.

To comment

Park officials have invited written comments through June 3. For more information on the plan, or to submit comments online, go to parkplanning.nps.gov/VOYA-frozen . Mail comments to: Frozen Lake Surface Access and Use Plan, Voyageurs National Park, 360 Highway 11 E., International Falls, MN 56649.


Public meetings online, in person

A virtual public meeting is set for Wednesday, April 19, from 5-7 p.m. To attend the meeting on Zoom, go to us06web.zoom.us/j/83447266503 or, for listen-only, call 312-626-6799 and give Webinar ID No. 834 4726 6503.

An in-person public meeting is set for Thursday, April 20, from 5-7 p.m. at the Rainy Lake Campus of the Minnesota North College located at 1501 Highway 71, International Falls.

This story was edited at 2:18 p.m. April 19 to reflect the Park Service changing the location of a public meeting and extending the comment period to June 3. It was originally published 12:55 p.m. April 18.

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