Rick Dunkley, DNR Forestry area supervisor in Pine County, estimates 200 "wheelers" -- users of off-highway vehicles, including all-terrain vehicles, motocross bikes, and Jeeps -- rode the trails and forest roads in the Nemadji State Forest during this past Memorial Day weekend.
Nemadji and other state forests in Pine County have long been popular places for off-roaders. But this was the first holiday that OHVers encountered an established trail network with posted signs in Nemadji. The result was a "mixed bag," says Lt. Rita Frenzel, a conservation officer supervisor in Pine County.
"I think more people were steered [by trail signs] to where they should go with OHVs," says Frenzel.
But Frenzel also says that more OHV riders are showing up in Nemadji these days, and consequently she's seeing more violations such as operating OHVs at unsafe speeds and recklessly.
Like Nemadji, the other three state forests in Pine County -- St. Croix, General Andrews, and Chengwatana -- are getting the first big tests of their newly designated OHV trail networks this year. As mandated by the state Legislature and cited by forest certification auditors (see "Stamped and Certified," May-June 2006), the DNR is in the process of classifying all 58 state forests for motor vehicle use. Some are being classified as "closed" (all DNR forest roads and trails closed to OHVs), some as "limited" (trails open only if posted with signs saying open to OHVs), and some as "managed" (all trails open to OHVs unless posted with closed signs).
So far, the DNR has evaluated and designated 18 state forests for motorized use. The classification process began in 2003 when the DNR conducted an exhaustive inventory in every state forest of every visible trail established by the DNR, cut for logging, or created by forest users. More than 11,000 miles of existing trails were found in the inventory.
Now DNR planning teams -- comprised of staff from five DNR divisions -- are analyzing every mile of those trails in state forests. In designating or decommissioning trails for motorized use, the teams consider factors such as proximity to steep slopes, wetlands, or other sensitive natural areas identified by the Minnesota County Biological Survey. The process includes public meetings with groups such as local citizens, OHV users, and environmental advocates.
"The purpose of all this is to look at the trails that are already there, and then have discussions and decide which routes ought to be open to motor vehicles as a designated, signed forest road or trail and which ones ought to be closed to motorized uses," says DNR recreation planner Brian McCann, one of four planners assigned to the OHV trail classification effort.
So far, about half of the existing trails found in the state forest inventory have been closed to recreational motorized use. Designated OHV routes in state forests are published online by the DNR at www.findthetrails.com.
Joe Russell, DNR Trails and Waterways area supervisor in Pine County, says that OHV users will need to adapt now that designated trails are established.
"I'm a walleye angler, and in some ways it is similar to the changes in fishing regulations," says Russell. "In the past I didn't have to worry about slot limits. Now, when I fish a lake, I must read the fishing regulations booklet and look for posted signs at the access. I know I'm accountable for the slot limits designated for that lake.
"All users need to know the rules for the recreational activity that they engage in."
Increased enforcement will also follow the new trail designations. In General Andrews State Forest, for example, a plane flown by conservation officers caught ATVers operating illegally and causing damage in an area called Blueberry Hill.
Dunkley, who oversees forest management in General Andrews State Forest, is cautiously optimistic that the designated trails will make it easier to police OHVs. "I'm hopeful," he says. "But there have been problems and damage in General Andrews. And we'll take a look at closing that state forest [to OHVs] during certain times of the year if things don't get better."
OHV-user clubs are playing a major role in preventing future damage and promoting responsible riding. The Washington/Ramsey County Wheelers club manages more than 20 miles of grant-in-aid ATV trails in Nemadji. The club has built 12 bridges over sensitive terrain such as streams. "We're all about making ATV trails sustainable and protecting the environment," says club trail maintenance coordinator Alex Chester.
Chester says he thinks things are getting better for ATVs in state forests now that signs clearly indicate where OHVs are allowed. But he also agrees policing is part of the equation too.
"There are places for people who want to go out in the mud -- like the OHV park in Gilbert," says Chester. "But there's a certain number of people … who refuse to obey rules about trails and wetlands. I hope enforcement catches those people."
Chester is preparing plans for his club to build ATV boardwalks over soft ground, even on trails already designated as open to OHV use.
He says, "Anything we can do to protect trails from erosion and rutting, we'll do it."
Gustave Axelson, managing editor