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DNR plan would limit ATV use in White Earth State Forest

Patrons of the trails on White Earth State Forest land might have to pay a little more attention to signage in the future. During a meeting in Mahnomen Tuesday evening, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials proposed bringing the admitta...

Patrons of the trails on White Earth State Forest land might have to pay a little more attention to signage in the future.

During a meeting in Mahnomen Tuesday evening, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials proposed bringing the admittance of all-terrain vehicles, off-highway motorcycles and off-road vehicles down from "managed" status to "limited" in accordance with a 2003 state legislative decision.

In 2003, the state legislature voted that all state forest trails be reevaluated. Most trails in the state were classified as "managed" at that time, meaning that trails were open to motorized vehicles unless otherwise marked.

In the decision, state forests south of state Highway 2, which runs from East Grand Forks and Crookston to Duluth, could no longer be classified as "managed," but were to be reevaluated as "limited" or "closed."

"Limited" trails are assumed closed to motorized vehicles unless marked open with signage. "Closed" trails are always closed.

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Under the "limited" classification, hunters and trappers would still be able to use trails for big game retrieval and other special uses, and any non-motorized travel, like hiking or horseback riding, would not be affected by the change.

Snowmobiles are also not considered motorized vehicles because they do not have tires, so the new classification would not affect snowmobilers in the wintertime.

At the meeting Tuesday, maps of draft proposals were hung on walls, and many visitors had questions about who the new rules would affect and various circumstances.

Many admitted the maps were confusing because of the "patchwork" nature of land ownership. Depending on who owns the land in question, different regulations would apply, which made attendees confused and frustrated.

Most people had questions about specific pieces of land, and DNR officials did their best to determine which rules would be followed.

Some parcels are owned by the state, explained DNR planner Bill Johnson, and others are under county ownership or are tribal lands.

The total acreage of the White Earth State Forest in Becker, Clearwater and Mahnomen counties amounts to more than 155,000 acres. Just over 42,000 of those acres are DNR administered lands; the rest is county-owned or tribal land.

Individual counties may make their own decisions about classifications of their land, but if action isn't taken, the classification defaults to the state regulation.

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Clearwater County, for instance, has opted to keep its land, about 18,500 acres, under the "managed" category.

Becker County has not yet made a decision. Mahnomen County, which owns only about 1,000 acres, is still deciding as well.

There are just over 100 miles of trails on the state-owned land, which could be affected under the "limited" classification.

In addition, there are other "scattered lands" under state ownership in the three counties that are not within White Earth State Forest, amounting to 24,600 acres and almost 40 miles of trails, which would also be affected by the "limited" classification.

The purpose of the meeting Tuesday was to let the public know of the DNR recommendations, and take comments, both spoken and written.

The comments will be grouped together and the DNR commissioner will make a decision.

Johnson said the changes would take effect a year from now, because it will take that long to put up signs, do the necessary improvements and put together new maps and information so patrons know where they can and cannot use motorized vehicles on the trails.

Johnson and DNR Regional Director Mike Carroll stressed that this planning session was the first attempt to plan in the area, and that legislative mandates could change in upcoming sessions.

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Johnson said he was extremely pleased with the turnout, which numbered about 70.

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