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More than 1000 sign petition urging Beltrami County Board to keep land open to motorized use; state bills would restrict use

Roger Bachmann, Jones Town Board chairman, presents a petition with more than 1,000 signatures to the Beltrami County Board on Tuesday night that it keep its policy of allowing motorized use on county lands, including the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

County-managed lands, including the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest, should remain open to motorized use, states a petition with more than 1,000 signatures presented to Beltrami County commissioners.

Meanwhile, a Twin Cities state senator will introduce two bills today that would restrict motorized use in state forests, including the repeal of an exemption for state forest lands north of U.S. Highway 2.

"We are all good stewards of the land, we love the land down there, but we want to enjoy it too," Jones Town Board Chairman Roger Bachmann told Beltrami County commissioners Tuesday night as he presented a petition with 1,066 signatures.

The petition asks that "the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest and the Beltrami County land remain open for ATV, snowmobiles and motorized vehicles use according to the rules and regulations that were in effect as of Jan. 1, 2009."

Bachmann said of the 1,066 signatures, 952 are from local people, some 90 percent of the total.

He added that Beltrami County's Jones Township held several meetings on the issue, which included several county commissioners.

"They heard the lpeople speak, the local people," Bachmann said, adding that a recent meeting included state Department of Natural Resources staff, Beltrami County Natural Resource Management staff and about 120 citizens from the township.

"Ninety-eight percent of them spoke to keep the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest open, and the public land open, for motorized vehicles," he said.

"We understand that our state senator wants us t reopen this issue in our county, and I don't think it should be," Bachmann told commissioners during the section for citizens to address the board. "It was decided and a lot of people put a lot of time into coming up with what we've got done now."

State Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, in a conference call with commissioners last month, suggested reopening the policy as a recent tour she and her husband, John, took of the forest showed differing land ownerships accompanied by differing policies toward motorized use.

It was hard to follow the different restriction signs every time they crossed a land ownership in the state forest, she said, implying there should be a uniform policy.

The County Board in 2007 adopted a policy of "managed" trails, where motorized use would be allowed on county lands, including the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest, unless posted closed.

The DNR, for its portion, chose a "limited" policy, which has forest roads open to motorized use unless posted closed but forest trails would be closed except where designated.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, will introduce today two bills that will restrict motorized use on state forests. Both are co-authored by Olson.

E The DNR must designate at least 50 percent of a state forest as traditional areas by Dec. 31 in state forests, which is defined as that portion of the state forest dedicated to traditional uses, including but not limited to logging, hunting, fishing, wildlife watching, hiking, biking, canoeing and berry picking.

All-terrain vehicle use would be banned within the designated traditional areas.

E The bill would eliminate the "managed" classification for off-highway vehicles on state forests. DNR would be allowed the "limited" classification, but no longer the "managed" classification.

It would also repeal a section that allows state lands north of Highway 2 to retain their current classification unless the DNR reclassifies them. It leaves in law a provision that all state lands be classified as "limited" or "closed" by Dec. 31, 2010.

Both bills will be referred to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, also a co-author of both bills.

Bachmann told commissioners that ATV users had helped to bar motorized use within 1,000 feet of the Mississippi River by providing gating rocks and gates.

"If we're going to start reopening this issue, then we want the gates taken down, the rock walls taken down, and we'll start from scratch," he said. "And then we're going to fight harder to keep everything open."

He said his sister has multiple sclerosis and "she enjoys the property down there, riding in an ATV. There's a lot of people in that situation. ... A lot of people can't walk in there."

There is no ATV damage along current trails, Bachmann said, "and I know that area from one end to the other."

Questioned by Commissioner Jack Frost, Bachmann said ATVers will work with the current postings in the state forest. "People out there have generally accepted it -- they're not happy but they will accept it. We feel that we gave enough. We don't need to give the whole thing up."

Frost said that the local ATV clubs are being asked to police the postings and monitor damage. "We can and we will," Bachmann said.

The Mississippi Headwaters Protection Alliance renewed its efforts to close the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest after Olson's comments about rethinking policy.

The alliance presented a 500-signature petition in November 2007 asking the County Board to rescind its policy and adopt a "closed" policy for ATV use in the state forest, with only motorized traffic allowed on established forest roads and none on trails.

It also called for a similar "closed" status for the county-managed Three Island County Park and Movil Maze.

The County Board has done nothing with the petition, and the Protection Alliance renewed it again last month, as well as asking that timber harvests be restricted on Three Island and Movil Maze.

Commissioners now referred the matter to its Parks and Trails Advisory Committee.

"Our county people have done a tremendous job with what they have done in replanting our forest and harvesting," Bachmann said on that issue. "I don't think it should become too political where county commissioners are going to decide which lands should be harvested."

Making the process political or by listening to a group of people who want to exclude a segment, "I don't think that's right," he said. "We've got very good people managing our lands very well."