Big decisions ahead on ATV trails in Superior National Forest

Superior National Forest map
Superior National Forest

The Superior National Forest covers about three million acres. That's nearly the size of Connecticut. A million of that is the roadless BWCA.

The rest of it is criss-crossed with all kinds of roads -- paved roads, gravel roads, dirt roads, and old logging roads that aren't kept up and are slowly turning back into forest.

Or at least they used to.

With more and more off-road vehicles in the woods, those old tote roads keep getting driven on. But they're not designed to be used forever. ATV wheels with their deep treads erode the soil, the roads get muddy, and the mud silts up the creeks.

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The forest service wants to decide which roads should be maintained and which should be closed, says Duane Lula, a planner with the forest service. He's been working on this for a couple of years, and he'll be offering up several alternative plans at open houses over the next week. The idea is to close roads where ATVs don't belong, and create better routes for them to follow, he says.

"A lot of these are short-spur roads, that start somewhere and go maybe a tenth or a quarter of a mile," Lula says. "We've tried to say, 'where can we look for opportunities where there's larger loops, and there's larger connected routes?'"

It'll be good to get some maps, and some direction so folks know where they're supposed to go.

The USFS is not planning to build a lot of new trails, but rather to connect existing routes, and in some cases to allow ATVers on roads designed for truck and car traffic.

That sounds good to Rhonda Silence, secretary of the Cook County ATV Club.

"The more enjoyable loops you have, the longer rides that folks can ride on trails, the less likely they are to be going out cross country and doing damage," she says.

But she's disappointed the forest service so far doesn't seem to be routing trails near businesses like gas stations and restaurants. Some Cook County folks will be disappointed at some of the road closures, she says.

"A lot of those short routes go to favorite fishing holes, so I think there'll be some wins and some losses in this plan," she says. "But it'll be good to get some maps, and some direction so folks know where they're supposed to go."

A couple of environmental groups have been following the planning process, and they've got several concerns. One is invasive species, like spotted knapweed, Queen Ann's lace and purple loosestrife. Invasive species in the Superior National Forest tend to be concentrated along roadsides and trails, says Brian Pasko, with Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

In the maps he's seen, too many trails go too close to the edge of the Boundary Waters, Pasko says.

Superior National Forest
A low-maintenance road in the Superior National Forest. The agency is deciding which roads to close and which roads to designate for ATV use.
Image courtesy of the National Forest Service

"The ATVs travel through these infested areas, the seeds get picked up on wheels and on the machines themselves," he says, "and as we extend these roads up next to the Boundary Waters, that increases the risk of those seeds and those invasive species increases of traveling into the Wilderness themselves."

Environmentalists here and all over the country say the danger is that temporary roads are being made into permanent roads. They say the forest service is unable to take care of the roads it has now. The agency is running an $8 billion maintenance backlog, according to Vera Smith, with The Wilderness Society.

The Wilderness Society has been pushing the forest service to consider zoning the forests. Motorized users should be separate from quiet users, just like city planners zone heavy industry away from homes, she says.

"We need to make sure we're protecting large segments of the forest for those who like to hike, backpack and camp and have some sort of quiet natural experience," she says. "Then, we need to figure out where we can have motorized recreation in a way that's not so damaging, and we can manage to pay for this whole system."

The forest service will offer its ideas at open houses this week and next in Duluth, Grand Marais, Ely, and other towns near the Superior National Forest. They'll take public input, and they hope to have a plan ready by hunting season this fall.