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Planning begins for Minnesota's first off-road vehicle trail

Chris Farden and Butch De La Hunt plot their suggested ORV trail route through the Paul Bunyan State Forest and along County 113, while John Weber looks on. (Photos by Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, off-road vehicle (ORV) enthusiasts, 4x4 clubs, environmentalists and concerned citizens collided at a "listening session" Jan. 26 in Park Rapids.

About 35 people attended the public meeting where DNR sought feedback "about suitable or unsuitable routes" for the 400-mile Border to Border (B2B) off-road vehicle trail.

Listening sessions are being held in Hubbard, Becker, Clay, Norman, Mahnomen, Polk, Red Lake, Pennington, Marshall, Kittson, Roseau, Beltrami, Clearwater, Itasca, Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Wadena, Cook, Lake, St. Louis and Koochiching counties.

Local information gathered during these meetings will be incorporated into a draft trail design, which will also have public input.

In 2015, the state Legislature mandated the creation of two ORV adventure touring trail systems.

The B2B trail will travel across the northern third of Minnesota using rugged, minimum maintenance, forest roads or trails for highway-licensed vehicles. The project will also identify possible connections around and into communities for services such as gas, food, lodging, camping, etc. Possible loops or spur trails that could be created at a later date will be determined as well.

The DNR was given oversight of the project and hired the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council (NOHVCC) to manage the project with the cooperation of the Minnesota 4-Wheel Drive Association (MN4WDA).

Funding for the project will be taken from registrations and non-refunded fuel from ORVs. The state Legislature dedicated $150,000 toward trail planning.

"We were directed by law to find a special trail. When I say 'trail,' I mean similar to a scenic byway," said Mary Straka, ORV program consultant for the DNR's Division of Parks and Trails. "This is a route for vehicles that are typically lower gear, all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, high clearance. We are looking for a scenic adventure trail."

By law, ORVs are defined as motorized recreational vehicles weighing over 2,000 pounds capable of cross-country travel on natural terrain. They might be a jeep or light truck with wheels that are 65 inches from outer wheel rim to outer wheel rim. Snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), off-highway motorcycles (OHMs), motorcycles, watercraft or aircraft are not considered ORVs.

The Border to Border trail "is for highway-licensed vehicles on highway-licensed vehicle route, so it's not creating any new system or trail that highway-licensed vehicles cannot already drive on," said Karen Umphress, NOHVCC IT and project manager.

The listening session in Park Rapids was the fourth of eight to be held across northern Minnesota.

"The input we need from you all, specifically, is where this route should or should not go," Umphress said. "This listening session is not a philosophical debate about whether or not this route should exist because it's legislatively mandated."

Existing speed limits on roads would not be altered. Straka emphasized that the ideal route would be rugged, unpaved, low-maintenance roads, with obstacles like roots, trees, rocks, to encourage slower speeds.

"This would be the most meandering, slow travel from Lake Superior to the North Dakota border that you can ever imagine. And the goal and vision of that is to minimize asphalt," she said, adding "This trail route will work best in communities that welcome trail routes."

Temporary road and trail closures due to spring thaw, trail repairs, heavy rains, logging or public safety concerns would still have to be heeded by ORV users.

Barry Babcock, an author and conservationist from Laporte, said a state law currently bans ORV trails in Hubbard, Cass and Crow Wing counties.

Babcock was a member of the Jack Pine Coalition, a grassroots organization in north-central Minnesota, that sought to limit ORV cross-country travel in the early 2000s because of the damage they caused. Several Jack Pine Coalition members attended Thursday's meeting.

Straka said she was aware of the law, but it only applies to primarily ORV trails. The B2B Trail will be a highway-licensed vehicle route.

One audience member identified four obstacles to the trail: Itasca State Park, White Earth Tribal Reservation, North Country Trail and Tamarac Wildlife Refuge.

Straka said Itasca State Park already has highway-licensed vehicle routes and is a "fantastic point of interest." The North Country Trail would be another attraction where ORVs could park at NCT parking lots and hike in, she said.

Another audience member noted that tourists visit the Park Rapids area for quiet recreation.

Willis Mattison, a professional ecologist who worked for 30 years in environmental control and with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, asked if an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) would be conducted on the B2B Trail.

The DNR's Environmental Quality Board will evaluate the route to see if an EAW is required, Straka replied.

The intent is to put B2B Trail in the Grant-in-Aid system, a cost-share program to facilitate development and maintenance of trails. Local trail ambassadors would receive training on terrestrial invasive species, monitor safety, assist conservation officers and pick up litter, among other things.

Butch De Le Hunt spoke in favor of B2B, citing tourism and its economic impact on the Park Rapids area.

"There's going to be a fight. My strong recommendation is to go around us," Babcock said. "We're highly mobilized."

"I strongly encourage you to come here," De La Hunt retorted.

After the meeting adjourned, Mattison said, "This project is so antithetical to our fundamental environmental protections, it's ridiculous."

He expressed concern about the "horrendous potential for adverse environmental impact, just at a time when we're dealing with climate change. These kind of inconsistencies have to be worked out. We can't keep fighting each other."

Babcock noted that the second largest state forest system in the nation is in Minnesota, second only to Alaska.

For updates and more information about the B2B project, visit " target="_blank">nohvcc.org/Resources/nms/B2B.

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