ATV law changes looming

Associate Editor

St. Paul As the DNR continues inventorying state forests for
potential ATV travel routes, the state Legislature and interest
groups continue to debate changes in legislation from last year’s
session.

Authors of this session’s legislation say it addresses private
property concerns and simplifies matters for enforcement. Opponents
say the new legislation unravels a compromise reached last
session.

Mark Holsten, DNR deputy commissioner, says some changes were
needed regarding ATV use and wetlands, both private and public. He
called it a “complex system” in which even emergency vehicles were
restricted from operating in some wetlands. In some cases, he said,
it would’ve been illegal to assist a calf stranded in a swamp with
an all-terrain vehicle, but with a John Deere tractor, it would’ve
been OK.

“We’re trying to make it an even playing field for law
enforcement,” Holsten said. Even with the proposed changes, he
said, “If you damage or alter a water course, you’re in trouble.
People imply that there are no restrictions, and that’s just not
true.”

Yet, some environmental and conservation groups are at odds with
at least part of the DNR proposal. And they’re even more prone to
oppose ATV legislation originally proposed by Rep. Tom Hackbarth,
R-Cedar.

State policy, says Matt Norton, of the Minnesota Center for
Environmental Advocacy, is to “enhance, protect, and restore
wetlands.” Instead, the DNR all-terrain vehicle bill “looks like
it’s saying there are angry people who can’t go through the
wetlands, so how can we make them happy, instead of how can we
protect the wetlands.”

Legislation last session made types 3, 4, 5, and 8 wetlands
areas nearly always holding water off-limits to ATVers, on both
public and private lands. Hackbarth’s bill would remove those
restrictions on private land; the DNR’s bill would keep some
restrictions in place.

“We’re a little tighter (than Hackbarth’s bill) on private
lands,” Holsten says. The DNR bill would prohibit ATV use on type 8
public wetlands (bogs), but would allow travel across them in order
that land owners or leasers could reach their property. There are
some Minnesota counties where vast expanses of bogs make such an
exception reasonable, he says.

In a letter to the state Legislature, members of the Coalition
of Minnesota Conservation Organizations (COMCO) state: “Supporting
access’ should not automatically be equated with supporting every
means of travel, in all areas. Sportsmen know that the most
convenient or rapid mode of travel is not always the most
appropriate, particularly where that mode of travel damages or
diminishes the habitat through which it passes.” Further, “COMCO
supports the current wetland regulations barring motorized travel
in types 3, 4, 5, and 8 wetlands, despite the occasional
inconvenience that it causes to some of us in the sporting
community.”

Hackbarth said during the off-session he’d received several
complaints about last year’s legislation, specifically confusion
with and exception to private land restrictions. He and other
legislators said constituents were concerned about further erosion
of private land rights.

Said Norton, “Nobody’s going after ATVs for minimal, occasional
damaging activities. But we must have legislation that gives
enforcement the discretion to come down on those who turn wetlands
into big mud holes.”

Meanwhile, DNR officials say they continue to inventory forests
per last year’s legislation. The inventories will allow the agency
to better develop a system of trails where off-road vehicles,
including ATVs, are allowed.

There are about 4.2 million acres in 57 forests to
inventory.

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