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Kittson County judge: Ditch dumps not public roads

The days of ATVs traveling within the Beaches Lake Wildlife Management Area in northwestern Minnesota may be over.

A Kittson County District Court judge recently ruled that the state -- not county government -- has control over trails that routinely have been used by all-terrain vehicles.

The county has long considered the routes as public roads, which gave them control over their use. But 9th District Judge Donna Dixon ruled that they were ditch dumps, not public roads, giving authority over them to the state. In essence, that's the Department of Natural Resources, which operates the WMA that is located in Kittson and Roseau counties.

The DNR and county commissioners have battled over the issue for more than four years. Three years ago, there was a battle of signs, the county posting that the trails were open to ATV traffic while the DNR put up gates, only to have them removed by a county commissioner. The county has agreed all along with the DNR that ATV traffic shouldn't be allowed off those trails.

It was a complicated case, with the key evidence being documents from a drainage commission at the turn of the century. But the issue behind the legal documents and evidence was ATV use.

"It's not to say that we won't allow vehicle traffic, but we will control it," said Dennis Simon of the DNR's St. Paul office. "We will probably restrict such travel to highway license vehicles, but only certain routes and certain times of the year."

Simon said the issue was important to the DNR not only at Beaches Lake, but all of its WMAs and other properties.

"There are quite a number of ditches that run through state land," he said. "If it's determined that each ditch has a public road running alongside it, then there's a real potential for a lot of disruption to the public property.

"More specifically, for Beaches Lake, we feel that use of some all-terrain vehicles has been illegal and causes problems with our purpose, which is production and utilization of wildlife. It would be one thing if the ATVs stayed on the trails, but they don't. Guys love to mud through the wetlands, which causes erosion and wetland degradation."

The judge ruled that the county has ownership of the ditches and can use the trails for maintenance of them. Joe Bouvette, the Kittson County Board chairman, said that makes for a contradictory opinion. The county is asking Dixon to review her decision.

Bouvette said the issue was about road ownership, not ATV travel.

"The most important thing isn't that the roads can be opened to public travel," he said. "The most important thing is that we wanted to prove our road ownership and the rights and control that go with them."

But he agreed that allowing ATV travel is important to the board.

"We wanted to make a trail from Kittson County to Roseau County and this ruling stymies that," he said. "Both us and the state don't want ATVs driving all over the WMA. If they're going to be in there, we want them on a road.

"I don't think the issue is really settled. The only way to settle it is to sit down with the DNR and negotiate. Maybe we can find a situation that's good for both of us."