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Mudder trucks dispute: Moe sought to get state land in Beltrami included in ban; county pulled in conference

Large, 4-by-4 pickups, modified for off-road use, churn up river beds and destroy banks. They should be banned from state public lands, says Assistant House Majority Leader Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji.

His wishes, however, has conflicted with that of the Beltrami County Board, which maneuvered to be excluded from a narrower ban approved by the 2007 Legislature.

Moe this session re-introduced a bill he's carried since first elected to prohibit public land administered by the state to be developed for 4-by-4 truck trails, unless authored by the Legislature.

Another exception, under Moe's bill, would be for designated off-road vehicle use areas, such as a special area near Gilbert in a former mining pit, constructed by the state Department of Natural Resources.

"It's no secret I've been working on this law for three years," Moe said last week in an interview. "User conflicts is one of the biggest challenges you have in recreation management. How do you try to manage the forests or whatever area you have for the different user groups? Sometimes, you've just got to draw the line someplace."

The issue came to a head several years ago when 4-by-4 trucks, also known as "mudders," destroyed an area in a Hubbard County state forest, prompting both Moe and Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, to seek the legislation.

Moe says he uses an all-terrain vehicle in training his sled dogs, and he runs a four-wheel-drive truck on minimum maintained forest roads.

"We want reasonable legislation without being too aggressive or overbearing," he said. "The consensus was, and if you ask people on the street ... the DNR building mudder truck trails is a step too far. And I agree with them."

There are only 1,200 such vehicles licensed in the state, he said. "Do we really want to be the place where they all come? I think that's a step too far, and I think most people in the state and the district agree with that."

This year, however, Moe said he got opposition from fellow DFLers on the Iron Range who said his bill was too broad and should be narrowed to where there are problems.

"Members from my own party, primarily from the Range, were concerned about passing a law for the rest of the state when the state DNR was only looking at building these things (trails) in the north-central area," Moe said.

In an amendment to the state's omnibus environment and natural resources funding bill, Moe narrowed the scope to areas where 4-by-4 trails were planned or implemented.

The House passed the measure in its bill to ban the DNR from developing trails primarily for off-road vehicles on state-administered land in Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard and Beltrami counties.

"It's very important that people understand the difference between an OHV and an ORV," said Moe, referring to off-highway vehicles and off-road vehicles. "OHV is an umbrella term ... a broad term that defines ATVs, motocross motorcycles and (some) mudder trucks.

"ORV is how a mudder truck is defined in statute and that's what this law is talking about," he said. That definition calls for "a four-wheeled motor-driven recreational vehicle that was manufactured to operate primarily upon public roads and highways and that is subsequently modified with special tires, suspension, or other equipment for cross-country travel on natural terrain."

But when the bill came back from conference committee, it applied only to three counties -- Beltrami County had been pulled -- and the bill couldn't be further amended on the House floor. It passed, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed it in early May.

"It was done without my knowledge, until the very end when we voted on it," Moe said.

Beltrami County was removed from the measure in a conference committee amendment offered by Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, who chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

"The Senate did not have that in its omnibus bill, and the two bills had to be married," Chaudhary said last week in an interview while in Bemidji to canoe the Mississippi River. "Our committee felt that we should let the DNR designation process go ahead."

He said he had thought all through the session that lawmakers should not interfere with that designation process in which the DNR is by law directed to designate miles of multiple use trails on state lands. "It was a delicate one as it was, but the fact of the matter was the House felt a different way. They felt strongly that it should be banned in four counties."

Chaudhary offered the amendment to drop Beltrami County, he said. "It was a compromise to do three counties instead of four."

The issue arose at last week's Beltrami County Board meeting when Board Chairman Jim Heltzer asked for policy to be developed that the County Board speak as one when presenting positions to the Legislature. He accused Commissioner Ron Otterstad and County Administrator Tony Murphy of working to get Beltrami County excluded, when the full board had not discussed it or passed a resolution on it.

But Otterstad said the measure needed immediate attention when it arose in conference committee, that there was no time for a special board meeting. He said he polled other commissioners by telephone, but not Heltzer.

"I knew where you stood," Otterstad told Heltzer.

Murphy said the county is working on a plan to develop a "challenge area" for ATVs and other vehicles in Eckles Township along a former Soo Line Railway corridor in an area that lies within the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest above U.S. Highway 2.

It is hoped that the county-run area then could use connecting trails to reach it, some over state land. Moe's bill would have prohibited that, he said. "I tried to help Rep. Moe understand how it would affect our proposed parks and trails plan," Murphy said.

Moe charged that Otterstad worked through Dan Larson, who lobbies for both the Minnesota Rural Counties Caucus to which Otterstad is a representative, and the Minnesota Four-Wheel Drive Association, to get Beltrami dropped.

"From my perspective, no one ever, either from local counties here or Dan Larson, ever lobbied me on the 4-by-4 issue," Chaudhary said. A conference call was held that involved Larson, he said, but the discussion was on traditional forests "but the words 4-by-4 was never mentioned."

Beltrami County was dropped, Chaudhary said, "because it was a north of Highway 2 issue. There were north of Highway 2 senators who were concerned about it, and other legislators were concerned about doing bans north of Highway 2.

"And frankly," he said, "I could get agreement with those three counties instead of four back in the Senate," he said.

Told that Moe was unhappy that Beltrami County was excluded from the ban, Chaudhary said he should be happy that three counties were included.

"We accepted three out of the four -- I would think he'd be thrilled," Chaudhary said. "We could have done zero out of the four. I think he should be very happy that he got what he did, because we didn't have it in our bill at all."

The issue exemplifies the tone of the argument between recreation users, said Chaudhary, describing himself as an "enviro" with a 100 percent voting record from a slate of environmentalist organizations.

"We as enviros, if we want to protect, preserve and enhance Minnesota's environment, we're going to have to take a better tact than we have," Chaudhary said. "To walk around and being upset and angry because we got 80 percent of what we wanted instead of 100, is bogus."

Moe, however, maintains that his bill wouldn't affect any plans Beltrami County has for ORV challenge areas on county-administered land. It would just prohibit travel across state lands, confining their use to the county site.

And, he said, it wouldn't affect ATV use, with the DNR proposing a "limited" use policy for the state forest, of ATV use on trails not posted as closed.

"A challenge area is different from a through trail," Moe said. "A challenge area concentrates the use, with borders for where they can go. They won't be driving into the lake to wash off their tires like they're doing in Foothills (in Hubbard County)."

Beltrami County's proposed area involves a depleted gravel pit, he said, just as the DNR's Gilbert area is in a former mining pit.

"There's places we've degraded to a point for economic purposes that it really doesn't matter if we send 4-by-4 trucks in there or not," he said. "The effort that it would take to rehabilitate them would be pretty great, so sacrificing them for something like this seems reasonable."

Moe says he has Beltrami County's trails plan on his desk at the Capitol. "I know what they're doing. My estimation of the legislation that we passed wouldn't keep them from doing anything in their rec plan."