Despite an e-mail campaign waged by environmentalists, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has decided to proceed with plans to develop an all-terrain vehicle trail through the Schoolcraft State Game Refuge in northern Hubbard County.
"I'm flabbergasted," said a disappointed Barry Babcock, who had helped circulate a petition against the trail. "This just demonstrates again that the public and political process does not work."
Improvements to the 29-mile existing trail will begin once the DNR decides how much to fund the project, said Trails & Waterways Supervisor David Schotzko.
Hubbard County is the sponsor of the Schoolcraft Trail; upkeep, maintenance and maps will be handled through the North Woods Riders OHV Club, which has lobbied for years to get the trail and even lost $10,000 in grant funding when the process became mired down. The trails have been in use for snowmobiles and logging trucks for many years.
The club has requested more than $16,000 in startup.
"Each trail is different," Schotzko said. "It depends on the number of users and the soil conditions. And this being a new trail, most of those minimum maintenance roads haven't been maintained in a long time. I guess I call them 'no maintenance road trails' because it's been years since anybody's graded them or put gravel on them."
He said the DNR considered the 62 public comments made, 44 of which were against the project.
But he said, in considering the mass e-mails submitted by the environmentalists, many of them members of the Headwaters Canoe Club, the agency gave less weight to the opposition.
"It's easy to just hit the 'click' (button) and say 'it's from me' so we took that into consideration," he said. The 21 opposing viewpoints wanted protection for the river, Schotzko said.
Only parts of the ATV trail are adjacent to the river, but Babcock said damage from the off-road vehicles to the banks was visible last summer when the canoeists paddled up the waterway.
North Woods ATV member Cynthia Dudley said the banks are too steep for ATVs to climb up and down into the river, and said the Bemidji-based club is as environmentally conscious as the canoeists.
Proponents of the trail each wrote their own individual reasons why the project should proceed instead of mass mailings, and that seemed to sway the DNR.
The DNR's funding will be on a cost-share basis. The agency reimburses the club at a 65 percent rate for its outlays, and 90 percent of the cost of liability insurance the club must carry on the trail, up to the $16,000+ limit.
The club will not be able to enjoy the trail before it is closed Nov. 1, as all ATV trails in the state are to protect the deer hunting season.
Weather permitting, snowmobiles start using the trails Dec. 1 until April 1.
"A lot of them (opponents) were concerned it was a wilderness area," that would be spoiled, Schotzko said. "We just made it clear this was a working forest. There's a lot of state, county and private land. There's no wilderness designation out there."