For years, enthusiasts have complained that the DNR has been slow to build ATV trails. In 2003, the Legislature told the DNR to build a 70 mile trail as a destination for riders from all over the state.
But trails are controversial. Hardly anybody wants one running by their house.
The DNR's point person is Forrest Boe. He says it is possible to find a good place for a trail, and to satisfy most people's concerns.
"I think you have to have a well-thought-out public process," he says. "You need to involve people early in the process -- early and often. You need to keep the communication channels open; you need to minimize user conflicts."
But that's easier said than done. Becker County ran into opposition from the White Earth Nation. Tribal officials were angry because they weren't consulted early in the planning process. And that problem is repeating itself in St. Louis County.
"The residents have kind of been left out of the loop," says Deb Pomroy.
Pomroy lives near Pequaywan Lake, north of Duluth. She says most of her neighbors don't mind local ATVers. It's that idea of drawing riders from all over the state that freaks them out.
And Pomroy has her own reasons for opposing a trail here, where the Cloquet River has its beginning: wood turtles. Pomroy is a biologist. She says this area is a refuge for the turtles. They're endangered in most of their range, and listed as a threatened species in Minnesota.
Wood turtles bury their eggs in sandy soil. Pomroy says they would love to bury their eggs in soil disturbed by ATVs. But the eggs wouldn't survive.
"Even stepping on a nest, which is buried in the soil, and you don't know that there are eggs there, is enough to destroy the eggs," she says.
The trail was the brainchild of Ron Sluka. He's trail coordinator for the North Shore ATV Club. Sluka had proposed it as a local trail a couple of years ago. But when he heard the state would pay to build a destination trail, he thought that would be great.
Sluka and St. Louis County worked up a proposal for the DNR. Then it hit the local media, and Sluka says a few people raised a ruckus.
"The way it was presented to the people, eminent domain would take over in cases if need be, and there were going to be up to 20 feet of your land taken for this trail," he says. "None of the above is true, totally none of it is true, absolutely zero. But it's too late: once things are rolling, it's rolling." Sluka says it's hard to get a rational discussion of the issues. What makes it worse is, this is happening in a tiny community, where everyone knows everyone else, and tries to get along.
Two townships passed resolutions saying they didn't want the trail. So St. Louis County is laying out an alternative. In the new version, the trail would pass through several unorganized townships.
Meanwhile, other counties are working on their own plans. One proposal would link Lake Mille Lacs with Grand Rapids, both major tourist destinations.
Aitkin County land manager Mark Jacobs says that plan could bring visitors to the tiny towns along the route. He says it would also begin to control where ATVs go.
"We understand we can't have ATVs everywhere, because of potential environmental damage," he says. "But I think it's unrealistic to say we can't have any trails because we don't want ATVs -- because they're here. And I think coming up with a meaningful trail system, that addresses many of the issues, I think is the way to go."
Jacobs says if the DNR picks the plan, there'll be opportunities for public input.
The DNR wants to make a decision in early January. But the trail was supposed to be finished this spring, so the agency will have to ask the legislature for an extension. And with the change of leadership in St. Paul, it's anybody's guess whether that would be approved.