DNR officials have so far trained about 30 trail ambassadors. They expect to have close to 100 ready to hit the trails by the end of May. Nearly all of them come from existing ATV clubs throughout the state. They come from a pool of people already certified as youth ATV safety instructors.
DNR Division of Enforcement education coordinator Mike Hammer says he expects trail ambassadors will have a big impact.
"I think the first thing we'll see is just that having that visibility out there of the trail ambassadors is going to keep those few bad apples out there, hopefully behaving themselves a little bit more," said Hammer. "When there's some eyes and ears out there and people know that they're being watched, they have a tendancy to not do bad things."
Trail ambassadors will always work in groups of two. Their job is to keep an eye on trail conditions and make note of things like erosion, downed trees or damage caused by renegade riders who stray from designated trails.
Ambassadors will interact with riders and hand out information about safety and trail regulations. They'll even monitor for invasive plant species, which are a growing concern for land managers.
Lawmakers authorized the program last year, and funded it with half-a-million dollars over two years. Much of that money will go directly to ATV clubs, which will use it to support ambassadors on trails primarily north of Interstate 94.
“Having that visibility out there... is going to keep those few bad apples out there hopefully behaving themselves a little bit more.”Mike Hammer, DNR
The DNR expects ambassadors statewide will put in some 12,000 hours of trail time this summer, mostly on the weekends.
Hammer says at the end of each day on the trail, ambassadors will turn in a report to the agency. Hammer says those reports will be a valuable tool, especially since the DNR has a limited number of enforcement officers, and only three in the whole state who focus specifically on off-highway vehicle issues.
"It's going to provide quick information back to the Department of Natural Resources," Hammer said. "If there is trail damage out there, if there is incursions into wetlands, then we can get out there right away and take preventative measures to prevent that from continuing."
One thing the ambassadors are not, is trail police. They won't be chasing down violators or handing out citations.
Cheryle Young from Coon Rapids, a member of the North Metro Trail Riders ATV club, and her husband went through ambassador training last month.
"We are not enforcement officers, so we cannot confront them," said Young. "But what we'll do is just make note of it. If we have a chance to talk to them on the trail, we'll just say 'how you doing? Here's some regulations. Oh, I noticed that you went off the trail. You really aren't supposed to do that. Here's the regulations that show you the laws in case you weren't aware of that.'"
Young says getting ATV clubs more involved in safeguarding the state's trail system is a good idea. But not everyone agrees.
Jeff Brown heads the Duluth-based group Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation. That organization fundamentally opposes funneling state money to private clubs.
Brown says his organization has documented abuses of state funds by some clubs. He worries the same thing will happen with the ambassador program.
He says many Minnesotans don't realize that every time they fill up at the pump, a portion of the gas tax goes to support motorized recreation. Brown claims those funds are poorly regulated. He doesn't trust the clubs to protect the environment.
"Any Minnesotan with common sense would agree that you don't give the fox money to guard the hen house," said Brown. "It doesn't make any sense that all of Minnesotans -- every person who pays, and every farmer who puts gas in their farm vehicle -- is paying into motorized recreation, when a tiny minority of people are actually doing that activity."
Some lawmakers agree. There are efforts in the Legislature to change the formula that funds programs like the trail ambassadors. The bills would take gas tax revenues away from motorized user groups and force machine owners to pay higher registration fees.