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State forest trail plan a 'compromise'

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced Thursday state forest lands within the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest will be classified "limited" to motorized vehicles.

Thursday's announcement didn't surprise proponents hoping to protect the area. While they were disappointed, their efforts were not totally in vain.

A proposed ATV/OHM trail crossing of the Mississippi River at Coffee Pot Landing was removed.

Commissioner Mark Holsten's orders, which designate forest roads and trails for specific types of uses, will also classify scattered DNR-managed lands within southwest Beltrami County as "limited."

"The final plan charts a new course for this state forest," Holsten said. "Thoughtful consideration was given to all the public comments received regarding the draft plan. Specific route designations will be more restrictive."

Under the "limited" classification framework, the general rule is that forest roads are open to all highway-licensed and off-highway vehicles, which include all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), off-highway motorcycles (OHMs) and off-road vehicles (ORVs) such as Jeeps and four-wheel drive trucks.

Forest trails, however, are closed to all motorized uses, unless posted open for specified types of motorized travel.

Matt Norton, forest and wildlife attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), said, "The Mississippi Headwaters is a wild and scenic river and allowing any off-road vehicles will damage the river's wild character.

"Cars and pickups are not the problem," Norton said. "It's the ATVs that ignore signs, drive around gates, drive into the river, rip around and do the damage, including erosion that pollutes the waters of this wilderness portion of the river.

According to Norton, the DNR's constant ATV enforcement problems in this area haven't gotten better, as promised. "The bottom line is Minnesota has a legal duty to protect the wild river character of the Mississippi Headwaters and ATVs are incompatible with the wild river designation."

Further, Norton criticized the DNR's idea that it is possible to mix noisy ATVs and dirt bikes with the quiet wilderness paddling experience and remote wildlife habitat of a wild river. "It is not," he said.

Since the DNR opened the process of receiving comments on a draft plan, local canoe clubs, birders, wild river enthusiasts and backcountry campers, hunters and anglers have favored closing the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest to ATVs.

The MCEA, along with other groups, still supports the option of closing the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest to motorized vehicles and fears the decision won't work and will lead to more destruction of this nationally significant place.

"The DNR called this a compromise," said Henry Van Offelen, natural resource scientist for MCEA. "We continue to compromise and over the last 100 years, every time we compromise, it's the natural resource that gets compromised."

According to the DNR, other elements of the Mississippi Headwaters plan provide:

n almost 15,000 acres of land adjacent to the Mississippi River will be designated as an Area with Limitations where the hunting and trapping exemptions for ATV use do not apply.

n all motor vehicles must use only designated and signed roads and trails in the Area with Limitations on DNR and Hubbard County lands.

n approximately 3.8 miles are designated hunter walking trails.

The commissioner's orders mark the culmination of 18 months of cooperative planning among the natural resource management departments from DNR and Beltrami, Clearwater and Hubbard counties.

The commissioner's orders will take effect Dec. 31, 2008, after field teams have had an opportunity to erect the necessary signs.

"We worked with the counties and were able to make changes in response to public comments," said Mike Carroll, DNR Northwest Region director. "We believe the plan strikes a balance between quality motorized and non-motorized opportunities while protecting the Mississippi River."

Field teams will begin signing trails this spring, according to Carroll. "Of course, the hard work of monitoring and enforcement will continue," Carroll said. "This will require the ongoing cooperation and support of our partners. We will have to adapt our management practices to deal with changing recreational use patterns and their increasing demands on our forests."

The commissioner's orders, planning documents and maps of designated forest roads will be available on the DNR Web site at Feb. 25.

The classification does not affect the use of snowmobiles in the area.