When it comes to making rules for ATVs in state forests, discourse between riders and environmentalists is often contentious. A new Senate bill is designed to ease some of those tensions while addressing issues both sides care about.
"We are not out of the chute yet, but I think we are poised to have a minor miracle here on the ATV issue," said Sen. Satveer Chaudhary (DFL-Fridley), the bill's chief author.
Chaudhary is the new chair of the powerful Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. The senator says his bill closes what he calls a "loophole" that's been a sore spot between ATV enthusiasts and environmentalists.
The issue goes back to 2005, when lawmakers split the state in two. In state forests south of U.S. Highway 2, ATVs are allowed only on trails that are posted with signs saying they're open. But in forests north of Highway 2, riders can go on most any trail, unless there's a sign telling them they can't.
Environmentalists say the result in the north is that rogue riders are busting new, unauthorized trails. And because all trails in the north are considered open unless posted closed, people can use those new trails without breaking the law.
Chaudhary's solution doesn't change the north of Highway 2 rule. What it does is require ATV riders to stay only on trails that appear on a DNR map.
"Let's make a rule that says you have to stay on the map. Simple as that," said Chaudhary. "With a three line change, we are making sure that we have designated trails. Whatever the DNR ends up designating, we just make sure that that's on a map and you stay on that map. And you're in violation if you go off that map. That solves the people-making-their-own-trail problem."
No one is singing 'Kumbaya' yet... But instead of fanning the flames we now have people who are taking an honest, sincere look at the real problems.Sen. Satveer Chaudhary (DFL-Fridley)
Other provisions in Chaudhary's bill include raising the ATV registration fee from $30 to $45. He says it would raise more than $1.5 million a year. That money would go toward ATV trail development and more enforcement. The money would also fund a new program where trained volunteers would serve as ambassadors to monitor trails, report violations and educate riders.
Ray Bohn is a lobbyist representing the ATV Association of Minnesota and other motorized interests. Bohn says Chaudhary's bill is a good start at bringing all sides together to reach a compromise.
"There's a different tone in the Capitol this session as it relates to ATVs and off-highway vehicles," Bohn said. "And I think it's a healthy tone for all involved because we can all really sit down and talk more rationally, instead of emotionally about these issues."
Some environmentalists also see the potential for compromise. But there are more divisive ATV-related bills being offered this session, too.
One bill would require the DNR to set aside at least 50 percent of each state forest for traditional, non-motorized uses. Another would get rid of what's called the managed forest classification. That bill would essentially drop the north of Highway 2 rule and make all Minnesota trails closed to ATVs unless posted open.
Matt Norton, an attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, says many environmental groups favor scraping the Highway 2 rule.
"Eliminating the managed classification doesn't mean you're eliminating ATV riding, at all," said Norton. "It means we're going to provide trails, but then in exchange for that service, the people of Minnesota expect ATV riders to stay on those trails. It's a very reasonable position."
Observers say some sort of a compromise bill like Sen. Chaudhary's is more likely to get broad support. Chaudhary says his bill seeks a delicate balance between the needs of two groups that have been at odds for years.
"No one is singing 'Kumbaya' yet," said Chaudhary. "And we still have people on both sides of the issue that are very sore at each other. But instead of fanning the flames, we now have people who are taking an honest, sincere look at the real problems and trying to find real solutions."