The Becker County trail project is designed to be a 70-mile showcase of how ATV trails can be built while minimizing environmental impact.
Officials say it would be the first trail in Minnesota specifically designed and built for ATVs. It would likely attract riders from around the state.
Becker County Natural Resources Management Administrator Mark Lohmeier is the man charged with finding a trail route through thousands of acres of forest, wetlands and lakes. It's a mix of county, state and tribal owned lands.
On a steamy July morning Lohmeier stands on the edge of a logging trail looking at an aerial photo. Lohmeier has to lay out 70 miles of trail, and so far he's marked only four miles. With swarms of deerflies buzzing around his head, Lohmeier heads into the woods. This logging trail is mostly overgrown, just a faint track through the woods. It was probably last used for logging 20 years ago.
Mark Lohmeier says it's perfect for an ATV trail which will be six feet wide and wind it's way through forested hills with so many curves riders will be forced to drive slowly.
Lohmeier says some environmental impact is unavoidable when cutting a trail through the woods, but his goal is to design the trail to avoid wetlands and limit erosion. He thinks a designated trail will help reduce damage from ATVs in other areas of the surrounding forests.
A lot of area residents are against this. We don't see where it's going to help the tribe very much at all.
"The idea here is to concentrate them on designated trails and reduce the amount of trails they're just roaming free on. So hopefully we can get the trail system that's manageable and keep them there rather than have them running everywhere in an uncontrolled fashion," says Lohmeier.
As he plots the trail, Lohmeier is trying to avoid wetlands, eagle nests, and area residents who oppose the trail.
Ray Vlasak doesn't want the trail anywhere near his resort on Bad Medicine Lake.
"My experience has been that ATV customers and non-motorized, non-ATV customers don't mix very well," says Vlasak.
He once tried allowing ATVs at his resort, but Vlasak says damaged lawns and complaints from other guests convinced him ATVs would hurt, not help his business.
"I don't think there's going to be an economic gain, as a matter of fact I think there's going to be an economic loss because people simply aren't going to come here anymore," says Vlasak.
Twenty miles down the road, Dick Lesage has an entirely different viewpoint. He asked to have the trail routed past his resort on Ice Cracking Lake.
Lesage says nearby snowmobile trails have been a big boost to winter business. He says spring and fall are slow times for resorts, and that's when he expects the most ATV business.
"I think it has the possibility of equaling what we do during snowmobile season," says Lesage. "And spread out over a different time frame it would bring revenues in at a time when normally there are no revenues."
Lesage foresees selling two or three day packages to ATV riders who would use the 70-mile trail system.
But there's still a question whether this trail will ever be built. That's frustrating for Gary Thompson, president of the Woods and Wheels ATV club which is based in Becker County. He says ATV riders from all over the state have contacted him to ask when the Becker County trail will be open. He's unhappy with delays caused by opposition to the trail.
"They don't want it the way it is now. Then why aren't they coming on board and making sure it's done right?" says Thompson. "We have a faction up there that thinks that 27,000 acres is their private playground. It's alright for them to go cross country skiing, make trails on it and everything else, but nobody else is supposed to have the right to use it."
Thompson says his club has committed to help maintain the trail. The 2003 legislation that funded this pilot project required the trail to be ready for riders next spring. But county officials say if everything goes well, construction may not start until next spring.
In fact the Becker County commission has yet to sign joint powers agreement with the DNR for this project. The county is concerned about opposition from the White Earth Nation. Most of the proposed trail is within the reservation boundaries.
State and county officials say they're close to an agreement on the trail with White Earth. But the tribal council is on record opposing the planned 70-mile trail.
Tribal officials say Becker county created a preliminary trail plan without input from the tribe.
White Earth Natural Resources Director Mike Swan says that angered tribal leaders.
"We did sit down with Becker County and with the state DNR and one of the things they did realize is they shouldn't have just taken a map and put lines where the trail should go. That's when they said we should step back and look at how we can work things out," says Swan.
White Earth wants to develop a reservation-wide ATV policy before they even consider allowing ATV trails, according to Swan, who says tribal members are concerned about environmental damage and damage to cultural sites. He's also concerned about enforcement of ATV laws, because the tribe has no enforcement agreement with the state or Becker County to patrol ATV trails.
Swan says there's little reason for the tribe to support the Becker County trail project. "We've only seen that it's going to be beneficial to a few resorts, we really don't see how it will be beneficial to area residents," says Swan. "A lot of area residents are against this. We don't see where it's going to help the tribe very much at all."
Swan says the tribe will consider working with the state on a regional ATV plan, but he considers that is a long term project.
With a legislative deadline to finish the trail by next spring, the DNR is pressuring Becker County commit to the project.
DNR Off Highway Vehicle Program Supervisor Ron Potter says Becker County is a great place for the project, and he understands the challenges the county faces. But he wants the agreement signed in the next month, or he says the DNR will need to start looking for another county to host the ATV trail system.
"We need to show some progress, and we certainly can't go back (to the legislature) and ask for an extension when we haven't gotten much accomplished yet," says Potter. "We need to move along with the timeline in mind, realizing it's probably not realistic anymore, but we'll do the best we can."
White Earth officials say they have meetings scheduled with the DNR to talk about ATV issues. But a tribal official says it's unlikely the tribe will change it's opposition to the Becker county ATV trail.