ATV groups seek more in Beltrami forest plan
BELTRAMI ISLAND STATE FOREST, Minn.—There they go, chainsaws buzzing and wood chips flying, clearing yet another big tree that's fallen across one of the trails open to ATVs and off-highway vehicles after a big blow ripped through the area a few days earlier.
Members of two northwest Minnesota sportsmen's clubs—the Fourtown-Grygla Sportsman's Club and the Roseau-Lake of the Woods Sportsman's Club—have teamed up on this cool, cloudy Saturday morning to put up signage and work on trails.
Tough job, but someone has to do it, as the old saying goes, and the two clubs recently joined forces to form the North Star Trail Alliance. The clubs receive grant-in-aid money from ATV and OHV registration fees to help pay for signs and other materials.
"The trails haven't been signed good enough in the past couple of years," said Tony Moe of Grygla, Minn., a member of the Fourtown-Grygla Sportsman's Club. "We're just trying to update the system. People come out here, and they're scared because they don't know where to go."
Maintaining a trail system in a forest the size of Beltrami—at 703,366 acres, it's Minnesota's second-largest state forest—is a big job made even bigger when huge trees block the trail.
The volunteers say they feel strongly about having a place to ride, though, and they're not afraid to put in the work to ensure that opportunity continues.
So here they are, sawing up fallen trees and pulling them off the trails. They're also putting up a series of color-coded signs every quarter-mile or so, marking trail routes so riders know where they are and where they shouldn't go.
The various routes within Beltrami forest are classified as System Forest Roads, which are maintained and accessible to two-wheel-drive vehicles; Minimum Maintenance Roads that may not be passable year-round and typically aren't two-wheel-drive accessible; Designated Trails, some closed to motorized use, others open to ATVs and off-highway vehicles and all of them open to nonmotorized use; and Access Routes that are neither roads nor trails and aren't maintained but are open to all uses.
Throw in the forest's patchwork of private, tribal and federal lands, and knowing where to go can be tricky.
"We're trying to make a friendlier route," said Myles Hogenson of Roosevelt, Minn., a member of the Roseau-Lake of the Woods Sportsman's Club. "We're not going to have all the minimum maintenance trails done, but at least give them a route from Point A to Point B."
New plan in works
The recent trail work comes as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources takes comment on a proposed new trail plan governing motorized use in the forest. A public meeting on the Phase II trail proposal is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 28, at the DNR Forestry Office, 804 Cherne Drive NW, Warroad, Minn.
In a nutshell, the Phase II proposal recommends only minor changes to a plan implemented 10 years ago for motorized vehicle access in the forest. Beltrami is designated as a "managed" state forest, meaning all roads and trails are open to motorized use unless marked as closed.
That won't change under the new plan, said Joe Unger, Parks and Trails Division planner for the DNR in St. Paul. The DNR developed the revised plan, which proposes nearly 26 additional miles of motorized trail access, based on public input it received during a comment period last summer, Unger said. The plan also calls for about 10½ miles of new hunter walking trails.
The DNR received about 40 comments on possible revisions to the forest's trail system, Unger said, all of them constructive.
"We wanted to start with that public input so we could use it to generate these trail revisions," Unger said. "And now, since we've gone through that and gone through those comments, we've developed this plan, and this current public review is for reviewing what we're proposing."
The plan looks to be less controversial than the first trail proposal the DNR released in 2005. At that time, the Minnesota Legislature had passed a law requiring all state forests to be classified as "limited," or closed to motorized use unless specifically signed as open.
In the case of Beltrami, hundreds of miles of trails with a history of motorized use would have been closed. The plan, which sparked an outcry among local ATV enthusiasts and manufacturers such as Polaris and Arctic Cat, hit a boiling point in February 2005, when more than 2,000 people attended a public meeting at The Gardens arena in Warroad to protest the proposal.
Lawmakers eventually went back to the drawing board and passed legislation allowing state forests north of U.S. Highway 2 to be designated as "managed." The DNR conducted an inventory of trails, and by the time the process wrapped up in 2007, ATV and OHV riders in Beltrami forest had access to more than 700 miles of various road and trail types.
Phase II, by comparison, basically is fine-tuning and adding connections between dead-end routes that are difficult to manage and don't appeal to riders.
"That's one of the keys," Unger said. "A lot of what we're looking at would make connections between two different minimum maintenance roads or making some loops. Another key is safety. One thing we'd like to do is keep the ATVs off the system roads as much as possible. They're legally allowed to ride on them, but when you have a logging truck barreling down the road and an ATV, it doesn't make for a good combination."
To avoid that, he said the proposal in some areas calls for trails that run parallel to the larger forest roads.
Despite the net increase in motorized access, members of the two sportsmen's clubs working in the forest say the plan doesn't include a .7-mile route open for snowmobiles in the winter. The stretch, which is gated and signed as closed to motorized vehicles, would provide a connection between northern parts of the forest and areas farther south near Fourtown, Minn.
Without that access, ATV and OHV riders have to make an 8-mile detour down system forest roads. That doesn't sit well with Moe of the Fourtown-Grygla club and others.
"It's the experience you're looking for—the ride through the woods, not the ride down a county road," Moe said.
The .7-mile segment was closed under Phase I of the trail plan, but getting it opened is complicated because it falls within the patchwork of federal Land Utilization Project holdings within forest boundaries.
The DNR leases the LUP lands from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The DNR manages the lands, but its authority is limited, Unger said.
"During Phase I, there were some routes—minimum maintenance roads and designated trails—that went through those lands, and the new lease says no new motorized trails will go through the LUP lands," Unger said. "And since that time, there hasn't been any new designations on the LUP lands."
As Moe sees it, no one from either agency is willing to take a stand and open the trail, even though the Fourtown-Grygla club spent $60,000 on a new crossing over the Roseau River to improve safety for snowmobiles using the trail in winter. The .7-mile segment is open to snowmobiles because they're not classified the same as ATVs or OHVs.
"I think everybody's open to a lot of what we're asking for, but nobody wants to put their name on it," Moe said. "Being it's LUP land, nobody wants to make the call."
The DNR is exploring options for the .7-mile route on LUP lands, but it's early in the process and any solution is going to take time, Unger says.
"It's a little bit more indepth than what the entire Phase II trails designation process is," Unger said. "That's why we didn't include it, but we're looking into it."
Reviewing the various options could take up to a year, he said.
"If we do find an option that may work or that's agreeable between us and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, then we'd consider designating them, but first we need to work out our options on that end," Unger said. "And really, it would take local support and a grassroots effort to help consider some of those options."
If the clubs' recent trail work is any indication, there's plenty of local support.
"We'd like to get more than what they're giving us—you know how that is," Hogenson of the Roseau-Lake of the Woods club said. "We want to try to make a few more connections, but we've got to work our way through this LUP issue."