St. Paul – Brad Moore, DNR assistant commissioner for
operations, last week delivered a sort of “stay the course” message
in a memo to those staffers inventorying state forests regarding
future and present trail use.
He also took the opportunity to state that legislation from this
year doesn’t weaken (as some opponents have charged), but changes
the department’s ability to manage forest land for ATV use north of
Highway 2 in northern Minnesota, where 74 percent of the state
forest land lies. The legislation made ATV use in those forests
open to riders unless posted closed to all-terrain vehicle use.
“The new legislation Š provides DNR with important tools to
protect environmentally sensitive areas as well as the interests of
non-motorized uses of our state forests,” Moore stated in the memo.
“Specifically, DNR now has the legal authority to classify areas
within a ‘managed’ forest as ‘closed’ if circumstances
Further, north of Hwy. 2 the DNR may now provide an “exemption
to the exemption,” according to Ray Bohn, a spokesman for ATV
interests. Under bill language from 2003 – and still valid for
those areas south of Hwy. 2 – there’s an exemption that allows
hunters and trappers under various circumstances to operate in
areas where ATV use normally would be restricted. According to
Moore’s memo: “Additionally, in ‘limited’ forests (those where ATV
use is allowed only on areas marked open), DNR may now designate
areas where the hunting and trapping exceptions do not apply.”
Bohn said he approved of the new provisions for hunting and ATV
use north of Hwy. 2.
“It’s our feeling that there are some areas ATVs shouldn’t be
in, period,” Bohn said. The “gulch area” of Paul Bunyan State
Forest is one such location, he added.
Matt Norton, forestry advocate for the Minnesota Center for
Environmental Advocacy, said the memo from St. Paul probably was
intended to provide direction for field staff following the ’05
legislative changes – changes he argues don’t improve the DNR’s
ability to protect the forests from negative aspects of ATV
“The DNR has long had these tools (the ability to rule some
areas off-limits to ATV use) and hasn’t picked them up,” he said.
“They did not need this law to protect the environment.”
Instead, Norton said the new law “caters to hunters who don’t
want to walk more than an eighth of a mile from their ATV.”
“Why rejoice that we have new tools when we didn’t use the old
ones?” he asked.
Craig Engwall, special assistant to DNR Commissioner Gene
Merriam, said agency heads wanted to provide direction for field
staffers following passage of the new legislation.
“We still have a commitment to go through state forests and do
inventories,” he said. However, the framework is now different
north of Hwy. 2, he said.
State forests vary dramatically in size, and so far, the DNR has
inventoried 13 state forests, most of which are south of Hwy. 2,
Engwall said. There are about 40 remaining, which vary in size from
about 600 acres to about 600,000 acres. The department’s goal is to
have them inventoried, with trail and forest road designation, by
2008, he said.
“There were fears by some folks that with the law change, we may
walk away from the process and go status quo north of Hwy. 2,”
Engwall said. “Our message to the staff is that we want to go
through the process Š and inventory every forest.”
Most of the legwork for forest inventorying is on-the-ground
work – marking areas with use of GPS and making notations of forest
features and where ATV trail may be acceptable, he said.
According to Bohn, other aspects of the 2005 legislation pleased
the ATV Association of Minnesota. Fines were increased, and
educational requirements were put in place for multiple or blatant
violations of ATV laws.
Bohn said new legislation shouldn’t be a strain on enforcement
efforts, as others have said it would. He said enforcement is the
second greatest expense in the ATV account, with funds derived from
ATV registrations (now exceeding 250,000) and a tax on gasoline
(the two total about $1.75 million annually). The largest user of
account funds is trail development.
“We spend a lot of money on enforcement, but I also feel we need
to spend more money on trails,” he said. “I think there’s more than
adequate funding for enforcement right now.”
More trails, he added, could lead to fewer violations for riding
in restricted areas, because riders would have clearer direction
regarding where to ride.
Enforcement efforts aside, Norton said he believes DNR officials
should do what’s best for the resource – and should adhere to what
field staff say is best.
“I don’t envy any agency that wants to please everybody,” he
said. “There should be clear language that says the course should
be set based on what’s recommended by folks (in the field), what
your scientific information says. You should set your course on
what you believe will protect the resource.”
Further, Norton questioned the composition of the off-highway
vehicle “project teams.”
The DNR memo states about six or seven project teams will work
with other land managers (tribes, the Forest Service, etc.) to
“review all remaining forests and scattered forest lands and
recommend forest classifications and road and trail designations.
Not included as part of the “team,” Norton said, are
representatives of the DNR’s Fish and Wildlife and Ecological
A footnote in the memo states: “With a few possible exceptions,
area OHV teams that are currently working on forest
classifications/road and trail designation plans would continue
under the current planning process.”
“What,” Norton asks, “are the possible exceptions, and why is
the DNR backing away from those forests?”
DNR officials acknowledge it’s possible legislative changes in
the future could affect the agency’s action regarding forest
inventories. Recently, significant (and differing) ATV legislation
passed in both 2003 and 2005.