The Department of Natural Resources has been collecting comments on the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest in public forums over the past few months. The agency is hearing plenty from canoeists, bird watchers and others who say the forest needs special protection.
The forest is a hidden jewel and a national treasure, according to Barry Babcock, a member of the Headwaters Canoe Club.
"This is Headwaters country," he said. "This is what really defines us here."
Babcock is co-founder of the Jackpine Coalition, a group formed to raise awareness of ATV damage in the Foothills and Paul Bunyan state forests. He says the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest includes one of the most pristine sections of the river in the country. Babcock says the wilderness is being threatened by ATVs.
"There's already so much egregious damage in the Mississippi Headwaters," said Babcock. "It's as bad as anything you've seen in Foothills or Paul Bunyan (state forests). But we're asking for it to be closed not only for those reasons, but also for its small size... and mainly for its cultural significance."
Of the 130 miles of trails in Mississippi Headwaters State Forest, none are off limits to ATVs. There are some campground areas that are supposed to be closed, but renagade riders have ignored signs and obstacles set up by the DNR. ATVs have left deep gouges in hillsides. In some cases, the machines have been driven right into the river, causing erosion along the banks.
“They're not going away, these ATVs. They're part of our way of life and we need to manage their use.”Joe Vene
There are nearly a quarter of a million ATVs in the state and the number is growing fast. Many ATV enthusiasts say they're just as angry over the damage occurring in state forests. The way to rein in renegade riders, according to Bill Larson, vice-president of the newly formed Northwoods Riders Club, is to provide more education to young ATVers. He says riders also need to do a better job of policing themselves.
But Larson says banning the machines in the entire forest is not the answer. He says that would make it hard for riders to connect to trails on either side of the forest.
"I would like to see at the very least a corridor trail through the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest so we can access, there are trails in Hubbard County, and we're in the process of developing trails in Beltrami County, and that would be a natural, or that would be a logical place for a corridor trail," said Larson.
State law requires the DNR to inventory trails in all 58 state forests by 2008. The agency must decide which are suitable for ATV use and which are not. DNR officials say the agency's top priority is protecting sensitive lands. Mike Carroll, director of the DNR's northwest region, the challenge is to balance trail uses to meet the needs of both motorized and non-motorized users.
"People will be in agreement, if there's rutting and there's erosion, that has to stop," said Carroll. "But then you get to the questions of, 'I want to be on the river, I want to be canoeing and I want it to be quiet.' That's a tougher one."
Carroll says it's likely that portions of Mississippi Headwaters State Forest will be closed to ATVs. But closing the entire forest would be difficult, since much of the public land within the forest is administered by neighboring counties.
Beltrami County, for example, has its own set of rules. The county adopted a plan last spring that differs from the state's approach. It allows ATVs to drive on all trails, unless they're posted closed.
The state takes that approach only for forests north of U.S. Highway 2. But for forests south of Highway 2 - including Mississippi Headwaters State Forest - state law says the DNR must manage trails just the opposite. All trails are presumed off limits to ATVs unless posted open.
Carroll says those duel management philosophies might be confusing for drivers crossing between state and county lands.
Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene says that will all have to be worked out with state trail planners. Vene says unsustainable trails should be closed. But the county's goal is to keep as many trails open as possible for ATVs.
"The recreation phenomenon in this area, our area and the state of Minnesota, northern Minnesota in particular, is huge," said Vene. "They're not going to go away, these ATVs. They're part of our way of life and we need to manage their use."
DNR officials met this week to assess public comments on the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest. They'll They'll have a draft trail use proposal ready for public scrutiny this spring.