Beaches Lake is one of the largest wildlife management areas in Minnesota. The tract includes more than 30,000 acres, or about 45 square miles. The land is flat with large stands of aspen, miles of prairie grass and hundreds of acres of wetlands.
DNR Wildlife Manager Donovan Pietruszewski guides his four-wheel-drive pickup down a bumpy snow-covered trail that was created when drainage ditches were dug here about 100 years ago.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that all restrictive signs and cables that have been installed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on all existing roads, trails and ditch dumps shall be removed immediately.Kittson County Board resolution
"It's not really a road, it's the leveled-off berm of a state ditch," says Pietruszewski. "As far as I know we're the only ones who've maintained it for the last two or three decades."
Maintenance means mowing the grass a couple times in the summer and occasionally filling in ruts and potholes. The trails are usually impassable in winter, we're only able to drive on this trail because a logging crew cleared the snow.
There are miles of what locals call ditch dumps running through Beaches Lake Wildlife Management area. More than 20 miles of these trails through the WMA are open to highway licensed vehicles, like pickup trucks. The DNR says the trucks are less likely to cause damage than ATVs which can more easily drive off the trail.
Kittson county commissioners say these trails are roads that belong to the county, and they should be open for all traffic including ATVs.
"It's the principle of the thing. That's the whole deal. They are our roads," says County Commissioner Leon Olson.
He grew up riding horses and motorcycles through Beaches Lake Wildlife Management Area, and Olson has been at the center of the county challenge of DNR authority.
When the DNR put up signs closing the trails last summer, Olson put up bigger signs saying the trails were open by authority of the county board. Both sides agreed to take down their signs. When the DNR put up gates to close trails, Olson tore them down. The county won that round and the DNR agreed to leave the trails open to all traffic until the issue could be resolved. Leon Olson also expects the county to prevail in the long run.
"We want to keep what we think are our township roads open to the public for access to the WMAs," says Olson. "And we want to get a four wheeler trail installed for economic development. Every dollar we bring to Kittson county helps."
State law says ATVs are not allowed in wildlife management areas. The DNR makes some exceptions such as retrieving game during hunting season. But the county says if it controls the roads, those roads can be open to all traffic including ATVs.
Eldon Johnson grew up riding motorcycles on the ditch dumps in Kittson County. Johnson is a retired Kittson County auditor and a member of a local ATV club. He got angry when he discovered the DNR was closing those trails to ATVs.
"I rode my ATV past those signs much more than I ride now that the signs aren't up. I'll admit it. I was making a point," Johnson says with a chuckle. "If they want to take me to court, I said, 'I am not going to pay a fine, I'll spend some days in jail just to prove a point.' Never happened."
Johnson says he's invested hundreds of hours in what he sees as a fight against DNR control of local land. Johnson says the DNR does little to attract people to the area.
"I don't really know what managing they do, and maybe I shouldn't say this, but other than managing to keep people out," says Johnson.
He convinced the county board to take up the fight and he's become a local celebrity of sorts for taking on the DNR.
"I'm not going to ride an ATV for many more years because I'm getting up there (in years) but it's for the future. Because doggone it, if it's not opened up now it never will be," says Johnson.
Kittson County may well be an important test case for the future of Minnesota wildlife management areas.
DNR Northwest Regional Director Mike Carroll says the dispute revolves around who controls the roads, and the effect of allowing ATV traffic in the wildlife management area. Carroll says the the county and DNR see the issue from very different perspectives.
"They feel it's a backyard, local Kittson County issue and we know it has regional, statewide and perhaps federal implications for how our WMAs are managed," says Carroll.
Carroll says if the DNR gives in to Kittson county demands, other counties will demand the same access to wildlife management areas.
"We need to regulate this very closely, it needs to be done in a very legal process so it doesn't set a precedent for opening up other WMAs, knowing other counties are looking at it," says Carroll. "So if we get to the next meeting and there just isn't any agreement then we'll have to decide how we get this resolved. If it has to go to court, it has to go to court."
The DNR has offered Kittson county a deal. If the county can provide records showing it has maintained the roads in the past, and if the county agrees to buy an easement from the state, two roads through the WMA would be opened.
So far county officials have refused a negotiated settlement with the DNR. If they do, the DNR could find itself under assault from other angry constituents.
They might have different reasons, but hunting and environmental groups are both demanding the DNR keep ATVs out of wildlife management areas.
Minnesota Waterfowl Association Executive Director Brad Nylin says wildlife management areas are for wildlife habitat protection and hunting, not motorized recreation.
"If the DNR is to manage these WMAs, it's in their best interest to come to bat for us as people who are using these WMAs for what they are designed for instead of a highway or road or county road coming through," says Nylin.
Environmental groups are more concerned about the damage to sensitive areas if ATVs are allowed to drive through wildlife management areas.
Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy Attorney Matt Norton says he's watching this case very closely.
"This is a very open challenge to the authority of the DNR to protect the natural resources it's charged to protect," says Norton.
Kittson County raised the stakes according to Norton, when it hired a bulldozer to clean out two ditches in October. He says the resulting drainage could seriously damage a rare fen, where a threatened sedge species grows. The county says it has the authority to clean the ditches. The DNR says the action may have violated state law. The DNR says it's investigating the ditch cleaning but the issue will be handled separately from the dispute over trails. However the county says those new ditch berms could become ATV trails in the future.
As he drives around the perimeter of the sprawling wildlife area, DNR Wildlife Manager Donovan Pietruszewski talks about the remoteness of Beaches Lake which he hopes to preserve.
"Beaches Lake offers a unique experience where you can actually get off the beaten path and walk in several miles without being harassed by motorized vehicles or even hearing motorized vehicles. And a lot of people are looking for that kind of experience nowadays," says Pietruszewski.
The DNR plans to meet once more with Kittson County commissioners, but with legal action threatened from all sides, the case may not be resolved for months. DNR officials say the trails must be closed before spring thaw to prevent serious damage to the area.