Jeff Brown is probably the harshest critic of the trails designation process. He's the founder of Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation, a grassroots group that advocates for quiet sports. He's angry because the legislation that directed the DNR to designate trails, set aside the usual environmental review process.
"In 2003, the legislature and a small clique of lobbyists in St. Paul gave away our one and only legal right to intervene," Brown says. "We've lost our legal rights to have an effect, and we refuse to engage the DNR in their dog and pony process."
The author of that legislation is also angry. DFL Senator John Marty of Roseville says the original bill was a compromise. But two years later the legislature reversed itself and rescinded part of the deal.
"The 2003 compromise said we are going to designate certain trails you can ride your ATV on. The rest of forest, you can't ride on it, with very limited exceptions." he says. "The undoing of the compromise was to bring it for north of Highway 2 back to what it was prior to that, which is basically ride anywhere where they don't have signs telling you you can't ride there."
The law change happened last summer, toward the end of the legislative session. It came during the impasse over the budget, when it looked like the state parks might have to be shut down.
The pressure was on to pass a budget. The conference committee added a provision allowing ATVs to travel on state land north of Highway 2 on any trail that's not posted closed. Highway 2 runs from Duluth to Grand Forks, and the area to the north is where the biggest stretches of state land lie.
Marty says the new law was a body blow to the earlier compromise.
"Not only was it bad policy in my mind, not only was it undoing a compromise that had been agreed to, but on top of that it was done in a very underhanded way," he says.
“Of course from an enforcement officer's perspective, I would prefer limited, because then I have the signs there.”Conservation Officer Kathy Larson
One of the legislators involved doesn't see it that way. Representative Tom Hackbarth is a Republican from Cedar. He says the ATV law change was probably written in another bill. He says it was simply moved into the budget bill to push it along.
"It's just normal operation of the legislature; absolutely nothing sly or under the table was being done at all," Hackbarth says. "This was all above board and everybody knew what was going on. We do this with all kinds of legislation all the time."
Hackbarth says legislators, in consultation with the DNR, felt the compromise law would make it very hard to manage the big forests in the northern part of the state. And the northern forests aren't used as heavily as the forests closer to the Twin Cities.
Now, under the new law, the trail designation process is continuing.
The DNR has to decide how to categorize each state forest. There are three options. A state forest can be closed to motorized use altogether. The DNR has already decided to close four small state forests.
In what the DNR calls "limited" forests, trails are assumed closed to riders unless they're posted open.
In the third category, which the DNR calls "managed," trails are assumed open for riding unless they're posted closed.
For environmentalists, "managed" forests present a big risk. In a "managed" forest, the first rider blazing a new trail through the woods is breaking the law, but anyone who follows him is considered to be riding on an established trail.
It looks like the DNR will choose the "managed" approach on most of the big state forests in northern Minnesota.
Many of them are a checkerboard of state and county land. In the Cloquet Valley State Forest north of Duluth, St. Louis County is working with the DNR to designate the trails. The county will be responsible for putting up signs and trying to keep riders on the designated trails.
Bob Krepps is the county land manager. He says it's important to get the trails under control, but he doesn't know where the money will come from.
"It's kind of an unfunded mandate from our standpoint," he says. "And to some degree we're concerned about the proliferation of additional trails. We know how many miles are out there right now, but staff is finding additional trails every time they go out."
Riders are creating those new trails by heading off existing trails, into the woods. That's a big headache for the people who are meant to be policing the trails.
"Of course from an enforcement officer's perspective, I would prefer limited, because then I have the signs there," says Kathy Larson, a conservation officer who patrols northeastern Minnesota.
"Because a lot of times people will say to me, 'Well, I didn't know.' (In a limited forest, I can say to them) "Well, here's the sign; you went right past it.' So it gives me a lot more credibility. And I think when there's signs, it just makes it so much easier."
Larson is one of just two conservation officers whose sole job it is to enforce ATV rules, and that worries environmentalists. All conservation officers are being trained to enforce ATV rules. But that's in addition to their other duties, and there are thousands of miles of trails.
DNR assistant commissioner Brad Moore says there will be enough staff and money to maintain and police the miles of trails that are being designated. And he says if the trail system becomes too expensive, the agency will ask the legislature for more money.
"There will certainly be debates on individual forests, and there will be future debates at the legislature about how hard to enforce the rules and how tight they should be," Moore says. "But I think in general we're going to see more management of these machines than we have in past. And that's a good thing.>"
The DNR is about one-third of the way through the trail designation process. The agency expects all four million acres of state forest land to be designated by early 2008.