Groups challenge forest certification

Does the DNR have enough resources and political will to control damage to state forests from ATV use? A group that certified state forests as sustainably managed isn't sure. Two environmental groups say the certification shouldn't go through until the DNR shows it can do a better job.
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Blockage removed
An ATV rider has removed a tree placed across a logging road. In state forests designated as "managed," the burden is on the DNR to post inappropriate trails as closed. Environmental groups say the agency won't be able to keep up with the many new trails riders blaze each year.
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The criteria for certification cover a wide range of issues. Everything from minimizing the use of chemical pesticides, to keeping the forest diverse, to following standards for planting and harvesting trees.

Tom Baumann supervises the certification process at the DNR. He says the study that led to the certification helped the agency identify its strong points, and areas it needs to work on. He says certification also helps Minnesota forest products firms stay competitive.

"Companies that buy stumpage are looking to bring wood into their mills that have been certified," he says. "They can pass along to their customers the idea that the wood that's being used to create paper that they're using for their magazines and newspapers come from forests that are sustainably managed."

Time Warner prints its magazines on 60 percent certified paper, and it's moving to 70 percent by the end of this year.

Trail erosion
Critics say the DNR needs a bigger budget and more staff to enforce rules and prevent damage to Minnesota's forests. They say as long as ATV riders are causing erosion and other problems, the DNR shouldn't be awarded a certification of sustainable management.
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The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and the Izaak Walton League are challenging the certification of the DNR. They say the agency is responding too slowly to the sudden popularity of off-highway vehicles, and the damage they do to the forests.

The MCEA's Matt Norton says recent decisions at the DNR have been making the OHV problem worse, not better. He points to the decision to maintain some state forests as "managed" -- meaning off-road vehicle riders can assume any trail is open for riding unless it's posted as closed.

"They're not making these decisions on the basis of sound science," he says. "They're doing it based on where the political forces are pushing them."

And Norton says state laws get in the way of controlling ATV damage. Like Minnesota's policy allowing hunters and trappers to ride across country, off established trails.

"When people drive cross-country, it creates tracks on the land," he says. "The next person who comes along can ride on those trails, those are legal until the DNR can get out there, find the fact that there are new trails, look at them along their entire length and make a determination if they're appropriate for motorized recreation, and if they're not, put signs up."

Two organizations certified Minnesota's state forests. One of them, the Forest Stewardship Council, included several caveats. They're called Corrective Action Requests, and they require the DNR to do certain things to remain accredited. The first one relates to off-highway vehicles.

Robert Hrubes is with Scientific Certification Systems, the group that conducted the audit prior to certification. He says ATVs are a challenge for all forest managers. He says the Minnesota DNR may not have the resources to deal with the problem:

"To stay on top of this challenging, this vexing management task and to make sure policies that are developed are properly followed over time," he says.

One of the Corrective Action Requests calls on the DNR to analyze whether it has enough staff to complete its trail designation process. It also requires the DNR to come up with a better enforcement strategy to cut down on ATV damage to the forests.

And the audit team worried that even if the DNR develops stronger policies, Minnesota politics might override the agency. After all, Hrubes says, the legislature has flip-flopped on ATV issues several times in recent years.

"Legislatures get involved, politicians get involved, etcetera," he says. "And so our concern here is that the planning processes not be trumped by some after-the-fact political decision."

He plans to respond to the challenge of the certification within a month.

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