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County works with state on motorized trail plan

A trail proposal would allow all-terrain vehicles access to the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest, but not near the Mississippi River or in wetlands.

A trail proposal would allow all-terrain vehicles access to the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest, but not near the Mississippi River or in wetlands.

Beltrami County and the state Department of Natural Resources are currently working on a cooperative plan for motorized use on the state forest, which follows the Mississippi River corridor southwest of Bemidji and extends north of U.S. Highway 2 toward Pinewood.

The proposal calls for designating current trails through the state forest for motorized use, including ATVs, but creating an area of limitations which would prohibit motorized use, said Bob Milne, who directs the Beltrami County Natural Resource Management Department.

Milne and DNR Area Forest Supervisor Jim Gubbels briefed Beltrami County commissioners on the plan Tuesday night, with a formal draft prepared for the public by mid-November.

"The area of limitations boundary will have no motorized travel on wetlands anyway," Milne said, telling commissioners that state law bans motorized vehicles on wetlands and that most of the corridor away from the river is wetlands.

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"Much of the existing trail system is uplands, and we don't plan to create any new trails at this point," Milne said. Any motorized vehicle, from ATV to the so-called mudder trucks, would be able to use trails "which can support them. Most were forest roads used during harvest, so they can sustain most vehicles."

Since the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest includes both county and state land, the county is working with the DNR's West-Central Planning Team to draft a motorized use plan.

"We are collaborating with the county for linkages," Gubbels said. "Since the county land is open, and state ownership is scattered, the state hopes to link trails together. Most of the state trails involve minimum maintenance forest roads."

In the state forest now, the county's policy is to allow motorized use anywhere unless posted as restricted, Milne said. The state's policy is to sign all trails, either as open or as closed to motorized use.

"ATVs are allowed on any open trails, but not allowed off-trail or off-road at anytime of the year -- no deer stands, game retrieval or for trapping," Milne said. "It takes in the river corridor and quite a bit of the surrounding area."

"We're trying to find a middle ground," said Gubbels, adding that special permits could be issued when requested to use an ATV for bow hunting or beaver trapping to remove hazardous beaver dams.

"Most of the state system involves forest roads, and they will still be open to link with county land," he said.

The county could issue special permits too, Milne said, for waterfowl hunting to bring a boat in or for ricing, but in using existing accesses.

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When asked, Milne said there are currently only two ways across the river now -- one via County Road 5 and the other a snowmobile bridge near the Bear Den Landing which can only be used in the winter as access to and from the bridge is across wetlands.

Beltrami County and the DNR are also looking to designate a connector trail between Beltrami and Hubbard counties, Milne said. Such a corridor has been designated, and will be part of the draft plan released next month, which then triggers a 60-day public comment period. Much of the connector will use County Road 5, he said.

County Board Chairman Jim Heltzer, noting that Tuesday's briefing involved no votes, said he has received several letters and e-mails from people who oppose any motorized use in the state forest.

One, from a South Carolina resident who owns a house in the state forest area, wrote that the state forest "is a pristine wilderness area, truly a national treasure." The writer hopes that Minnesota "isn't going south" with proposals to open state forests to ATV use.

But, said Heltzer, "the plan and maps I see do prohibit ATVs in closed areas."

And, Milne added, "I feel good about what we're doing."

Heltzer told the dozen or so people who attended the meeting that no vote was scheduled, so no public testimony would be taken Tuesday, but asked if one or two spokesmen had questions.

Jerry Maertens, a member of the county's Parks and Trails Advisory Council and also of the Mississippi Headwaters Protection Alliance, passed out a statement from the alliance and also said he was concerned about the proposal,.

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The county/DNR plan conflicts with the Mississippi Headwaters Board's management plan, he said, adding that MHB has classified the first 47 miles of the river as "wild." According to the MHB, recreational trails are allowed only in "scenic" corridors of the river.

He also charged that three of the five DNR disciplines represented on the West-Central Trail Planning Team recommended the state forest be closed to off-road vehicles but alleged that DNR regional administration decided on a "limited use" policy.

"A lot of these trails will be within a quarter mile of the river," Maertens said. "The Mississippi Headwaters State Forest is touted as the last wilderness on the Mississippi. It's a nationally and internationally recognized canoe route."

Maertens said the Alliance would ban ATV and other off-road vehicle use from the state forest, but would continue to allow highway-licensed vehicles to use forest roads to reach berry picking or bird watching areas, as well as township and county roads in the state forest.

Kyle Crocker, who says he lives in the area and has skied all the trails there, thanked Milne and Gubbels for bringing forth a proposal for public study, but fears that defining "green" spaces as existing trails is wrong.

"All are former logging roads, most with steep gradients and in wetlands," he said. "They will not support repeated vehicular use."

Crocker said that "containment of potentially destructive ATV use" is preferable, and questioned the proposal for a trail connector between counties when Beltrami County is proposing such a contained area near Pinewood, along with a shooting sports complex.

"Connecting corridors to other counties negates that idea," he said.

Milne said plans call for the draft plan to start a 60-day public comment period in mid-November,, finishing in late January. A public open house will be held in mid-January in Bemidji.

The draft will incorporate the public comments and then be sent to the DNR in St. Paul for final approval, with the trail plan to take effect Dec. 31, 2008, Milne said.

bswenson@bemidjipioneer.com

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