DNR revving up another ATV/OHV park proposal

Equality, Ill. — One of Illinois’ newest public sites may soon be home to the first ATV park on DNR property.

It’s far from a new idea, but the proposal to develop an off-highway vehicle (OHV) trail at the Sahara Woods State Fish and Wildlife Area in Saline County appears to have a decent shot at becoming reality.

DNR said it will seek a $1.5 million federal grant for the initial phase of the project. 

Sahara Woods, a former coal mine spread on the edge of the Shawnee National Forest south of Equality, has only been open a few years. The Sahara Coal Company donated 4,000 acres to the state in 1999, but lack of funding to develop it into a state fish and wildlife area stalled progress.

DNR said it believes the site is well-suited for an OHV facility, which could boost tourism dollars in southern Illinois. The state currently has fewer than 10 grant-assisted OHV sites, including the Williams Hill Pass OHV Park that sits roughly 30 miles to the south and west of Sahara Woods. Williams Hill Pass, owned by local resident Jimi Williams, has 27 miles of trails on 220 acres.

DNR has not indicated the size of the proposed Sahara Woods OHV park.

“Gov. Rauner has asked DNR and the Illinois Greenways and Trails Council to proceed with seeking federal funding for a facility in southern Illinois to provide OHV enthusiasts with a great place for off-road riding,” DNR Director Wayne Rosenthal said. “Sahara Woods, with its reclaimed strip mined land, is an ideal location for providing a challenging series of trails for riders to enjoy.” 

In its announcement of the plan, DNR noted that it has promoted and supported development of OHV riding areas through “an OHV grant program that provides financial assistance to local governments and eligible groups and individuals for development of off-highway vehicle parks and trails.” 

While the grant program has assisted other OHV parks in the state – such as the aforementioned Williams Hill Pass park – Sahara Woods’ OHV facility would be the first on lands managed by DNR. 

Federal Recreational Trails Program grants are funded through a portion of motor fuel excise taxes collected from non-highway recreational use, including all-terrain vehicles, off-highway motorcycles and snowmobiles. 

“Federal law requires that a portion of each state’s RTP funding must be earmarked for motorized trail projects, including trail construction, support facilities, and restoration of areas adjacent to trails,” DNR noted.  

The Illinois Greenways and Trails Council was scheduled to review the proposed project and RTP grant application at its meeting on May 18. 

The OHV grant program was created as part of the Recreational Trails of Illinois Act signed into law by Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar on Aug. 1, 1997. This Act stipulated that all-terrain vehicles and off-highway motorcycles purchased on or after Jan. 1, 1998, must apply for a certificate of title. 

 More recently, in 2013, DNR made plans to implement an annual stamp for OHV operators. The plan was temporarily shelved in 2014 – the delay was designed to give lawmakers time to consider tweaking the law to further clarify who has to buy the permits.

The law had caused confusion because it exempted some types of off-road vehicles but not others.

On the OHV facility front, a plan to create one in Brown County fizzled in recent years due to backlash from local residents and sportsmen who hunt the area. That park was to be built in the Buckhorn Unit of Siloam Springs State Park. It was to be the first such park on state lands.

The Brown County Board was mostly opposed, and DNR’s Rosenthal met with parties involved in the proposal shortly after starting his job early in 2015, but there has been no update on the Buckhorn proposal.

It’s likely the Sahara Woods plan would be better received due to the fact that a similar park is already located in the area. 

According to a TV news report from southern Illinois’ WSIL, workers at Pappy’s Outdoors think the trails would help promote business and outdoor fun in southern Illinois.

“You wouldn’t have to worry about getting in trouble for stepping on private property or anything like that so you wouldn’t have those risks,” Alecia Cauthan, sales associate for Pappy’s Outdoors, told WSIL.

Opposition could come from protectors of the Shawnee. There are no ATV riding opportunities on forest property, and the U.S. Forest Service has restrictions prohibiting motorized vehicles from traveling off forest roads. 

National forests tend to have varying laws regarding ATV/OHV use. Michigan’s Huron-Manistee National Forest has set aside 450 miles of trail for ATV use.  Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes, a 17,280-acre national recreation area also managed by the Forest Service, allows ATV use on the 100-mile Turkey Bay Trail. Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest relegates ATV use to a 12-mile stretch.

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