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North Country Trail damaged by ATV and horse riders

Bruce M. Johnson, president of the Itasca Moraine chapter of the North Country Trail Association, stops for a tree that was mowed over by an ATV last month on the North Country Trail. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

When North Country Trail hikers discovered ATV and horse damage to a section of trails northwest of Emmaville in mid-August, they had some powerful evidence to turn over to authorities.

Parts of one of the ATVs that caused the damage, carving new trails, knocking over trees and mowing down underbrush, were left behind on the national scenic trail.

Those parts are in the possession of the Hubbard County Sheriff's Department. The vandalism is under investigation.

But in addition to outraging hikers, the damage equally angered two ATV club presidents, who both said their members do not condone such activities.

"Oh God no, that's illegal," said Dusty Strickland, president of the Timberland Dirt Devils ATV Club that mainly rides in the Paul Bunyan State Forest.

"Right, it doesn't, (condone riding on non-designated trails)," said Gary Nasser of the Forest Riders ATV Club in Two Inlets. Members are instructed to use legal trails only, he said.

The North Country Trail is closed to horse and vehicular travel. Deep hoof prints along the trail northwest of Emmaville made after a recent rain have turned the path treacherous to hikers. ATV tracks have rutted new areas of the forest that were pristine earlier this summer.

"There have been a lot of positive moves by many groups (of ATV riders)," said Bruce M. Johnson, president of the Itasca Moraine Chapter of the North Country Trail Association, whose volunteers spend thousands of hours hiking and maintaining the trails.

"They might be decent people but they're making bad decisions," Johnson said. "We have to respect each other's designated areas."

Strickland was angry at the damage.

"How the heck did they get in there?" he questioned. "The trail that goes through the Bunyan is so narrow and tiny you couldn't get a four-wheeler down there."

Strickland has been an ATV instructor for years.

"When I train my kids, you stay on the trail. As in life there's always the 1 percent..." of bad apples, he said. "You see it in hunting, in other areas."

Strickland and his club actually confront irresponsible riders if they catch them in the act.

"If I see someone screwing around up here I'll usually chew them out," he said. "'Hey I work hard to keep my forest open, to train my kids not to do what you guys do,'" is his usual line of defense.

Club members can't arrest violators but can report them to authorities.

"I don't want to stop riding in town or in the forests because of you idiots," Strickland said. "I've told all our guys if you see somebody doin' something stupid, give them the what for because you have to police yourselves."

The hikers meanwhile are waiting for the sheriff's investigation to be completed.

Authorities declined to discuss the ongoing investigation other than to acknowledge it was in progress.

"We're still tracking people down and talking to them," said Dep. Jarod Andersen, one of the department's two ATV officers investigating the vandalism. Adam Williams is also working the case.

"I respect their right to lawfully ride on their trails but this is unlawful," Johnson said.

Hiker Byron Knapp discovered the damage Aug. 14.

"Going through a county forest making your own trails is illegal," Knapp said. He owns an ATV and only rides the designated trails.

The hikers are worried over time the trails will fall victim to erosion and further damage.

"There's plenty of room in the forest for all of us," Johnson said.

The North Country trail is more than 4,500 miles long, stretching from New York to North Dakota, through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"We just want to see that it doesn't happen again," Johnson said.