ATV riders might have an inroad to land purchased with Minnesota habitat money

Lessard-Sams council member says vehicles will harm habitat

Tom Kennedy via  Star Tribune  Crow Wing Co., Minn.

A proposed northwoods trail could be a plus for ATV riders, but a member of the Lessard council fears the impact the vehicles will have on protected land.

An $11 million slice of the northwoods preserved as wild habitat with state money could become the site of a motorized, off-road vehicle trail under a plan that has rankled the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

Council member Elizabeth Wilkens said last week that Crow Wing County could help Minnesota set a precedent by denying the trail request from the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders ATV Club. But the county’s land services department — deeply experienced in forest management — has said the proposal fits with its comprehensive recreational trails plan and local officials are forging ahead with the approval process. A pivotal public meeting is set for May 18.

“Crow Wing County should be saying no to this,” Wilkens said. “If you want to recreate on wild land, you get yourself a backpack and walk on out there.”

The conflict has included bitter accusations from Lessard-Sams council members that the county pulled the wool over the council’s eyes several years ago by not openly divulging that ATV riding was a potential land use for the 2,000-acre tract known as the Mississippi River Northwoods Habitat Complex. County officials deny the charge, saying they were invited into the transaction for political expediency and had no role making representations about the property.

“We still think this is the right avenue to go,” Crow Wing County land services supervisor Chris Spence said last week when asked if the trail proposal was viable.

Covered in aspen, birch, jackpine, white pine and oak, Mississippi River Northwoods sits between two large tracts of forested public land. Together, the parcels protect nine miles of Mississippi River shoreline. It is one of the most scenic and largest contiguous blocks of protected lake or river shoreline in the Brainerd lakes area and it includes a unique lake-like basin known as Stump Bay.

“We’re not renegades,” said Russell Heittola of the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders. “We’re out there trying to find places where we can legally ride. We want to get this public land in the use of everybody.”

The council funded the acquisition of the former Potlatch timberland in 2012 as part of a proposal by The Trust for Public Land in coordination with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Crow Wing County officials said they were brought into the transaction toward the end of the process because it was politically unpalatable for the DNR itself to acquire more private land up north.

“County ownership provided the solution,” Crow Wing County administrator Timothy Houle wrote to the Lessard-Sams council.

His letter a year ago was part of a testy exchange ignited by the county’s consideration of the ATV club’s trail application. Houle accused the council of “political gamesmanship” and “revisionist history” for advancing the notion that the county had misrepresented how the Northwoods parcel would be used. He wrote the county’s interest all along was to manage the land like its other forests, including for recreation and trails.

And still the dust hasn’t settled. Under Minnesota’s constitutional Legacy Amendment passed by voters in 2008, the Lessard-Sams council awards more than $100 million a year to restore, enhance and protect natural habitat. Recreation isn’t a central mission of the council and Wilkens said many council members believe motorized vehicle trails lessen habitat values in areas worth preserving.

A recent letter to Crow Wing County from Lessard-Sams Chairman Bob Anderson said the negative impact from a multiuse trail in the Northwoods complex “could be definite.”

“Some thought needs to occur on how to measure improved habitat or detrimental impact to habitat,” Anderson wrote. “Such could put the county in a position of having to reimburse [the council] for compensation for the detrimental impacts to habitat.”

But Pence said the county expects to maintain ownership without any sort of penalty. In fact, if the county board approves the trail designation, the county would apply to the DNR for Grant-In-Aid funding from ATV registration fees to help maintain the trail, he said.

According to DNR records, Minnesota ATV registration fees exceed $4.5 million a year. Riders registered 276,311 ATVs last year, a 17 percent increase since 2005. And while ATVs easily outnumber snowmobiles in Minnesota, snowmobile trails outnumber ATV trails about 10 to 1, DNR records show.

Anderson’s recent letter to the county was part of a busy public comment period on the proposed Northwoods trail. About half the comments were in favor while half were against, Pence said.

The proposal’s next step is a review from the county’s Natural Resource Advisory Committee on May 18.

Pence and Heittola said dirt trails and logging roads were laced into the Northwoods property when Potlatch owned it. The Cuyuna Iron Range Riders’ proposal excludes a large portion of those existing trails and no new trails are proposed. The project has been touted locally for its tourism benefits, and formal backing has come from groups ranging from the Camp Ripley Veterans State Trail Committee to the Ya Betcha Bar and Grill in Crosby.

But Wilkens is still holding out hopes for a reversal by the county. “Maybe we won’t make as much in tourism, but at some point, we have to say ‘no,’ ” Wilkens said.

Regardless, she said, the case has intensified the screening of land acquisition proposals by the Lessard-Sams council. “When you break up land with trails and roads, it affects habitat in a negative way,” she said.