HOLYOKE, Minn. – Mike Dahl kicked leaves from the edge of the Little Net River in Nemadji State Forest, his workplace for 39 years.
A nearby ATV trail had washed out in a summer downpour, muddying the stream and threatening its brook trout. With the next big rain, still more soil would surge from the heavily used trail into the water.
"It's like a lava flow," said Dahl, a retired state forester who still lives on Nemadji's northern fringe, 32 miles from Duluth. "DNR doesn't always use its own best management practices to help protect stream corridors."
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar ATV trail building boom to accommodate the tens of thousands of new off-road machines sold to Minnesotans in recent years. Advocates vow to lace the North Woods with a network of forest pathways from the Iron Range to International Falls and the North Shore.
All this expansion comes with goals of getting more Minnesotans outdoors, pumping money into local economies and creating safer riding experiences. To intensify its ATV trail planning, including building two $1 million bridges, the DNR asked the Legislature this year for $250,000.
The spending spree is out of control, environmental advocates say, claiming the state's latticework of ATV trails destroys fish and wildlife habitat, crowds out hunters, birders and other outdoor enthusiasts, burdens already too-thin ranks of DNR conservation officers and costs too much to maintain.
"There's such a proliferation of trails now, you can't believe it," said Bob Djupstrom, a former DNR executive who has hunted grouse, deer and bear in Nemadji for decades. "This used to be a really, really wild forest. Now it's basically a big motorized trail system."
ATVs border to border
Minnesota ATV registrations grew to 323,956 machines last year, a 36% increase from 15 years ago, and associated fees and gas taxes have juiced the DNR's ATV Fund to $8.8 million — a 417% increase since 2000.
By comparison, the Snowmobile Fund grew 53% over the same period. ATV registrations eclipsed snowmobile registrations in 2007.
Riders of ATVs, dirt bikes and other off-highway vehicles have access to 2,875 state trail miles — a more than 100% jump since 2005 — maintained mostly by clubs using ATV Fund dollars.
But that only begins to describe the buildup.
Fifteen state motorized trail projects are in the works that will add 354 miles of opportunity, and another 380 miles will come on line at the direction of the Legislature to form a Voyageurs ATV Trail out of Crane Lake and Prospectors ATV Trail connecting Ely, Tower, Soudan, Babbitt and Embarrass.
Once completed, maintenance for these systems likely will shift to the DNR.
Additionally, Superior National Forest in the past four years has added about 250 miles of natural surface trails for Minnesota ATVers.
The U.S. Forest Service also is integral to the largest motorized recreation project in the state — the proposed 764-mile "Border to Border" touring route across northern Minnesota on existing back roads. The DNR is pushing ahead with the rugged 4x4 truck passage despite repeated pleas from a citizens' group to conduct a formal environmental review.
Greater use of Environmental Assessment Worksheets for off-highway vehicle projects was strongly recommended in a 2003 Legislative Auditor's report critical of DNR's oversight of motorized recreation.
Communing with nature
DNR officials see motorized trail expansion as a way to connect more Minnesotans to the outdoors. Six years ago, when the agency wrote its 10-year conservation plan, participation and revenue from traditional forms of outdoor recreation were in decline.
Riding clubs recognized the opportunity and organized a strong lobby to extend existing trails and build new ones. The projects are putting more families outdoors while boosting regional tourism.
Membership in the umbrella group All Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota (ATVAM) is climbing faster than ever and now represents more than 3,000 ATV households. In 2020, 186 ATV riders devoted 4,900 hours to trail monitoring work as volunteer "ambassadors." The work represented a 141% increase over the same duties in 2008.
"We've seen an incredible uptick with the number of riders on our trails," said Aitkin County Land Administrator Rich Courtemanche. "It's a great equalizer to get people out into the woods without having to be very physically fit."
Having already built the biggest county-operated ATV trail system in Minnesota, Courtemanche commands $1.5 million in state bonding dollars to extend Aitkin County's 211-mile Northwood Regional ATV Trail to reach Mille Lacs resort communities. Engineers are studying the best route.
Laura Preus, a planning manager for the DNR, said demand for motorized trails is phenomenal. Stress relief in the outdoors is a big part of the attraction, she said. As the system expands, it's worth the cost and effort to build it correctly, she said.
"We're trying to serve all of Minnesota, and that's the key part of this," Preus said. "How do we build the right amount so it's well maintained?"
According to data compiled by the Star Tribune, active motorized trail projects have attracted at least $12.34 million since 2016 in appropriations, commitments and 2021 spending bills at the Legislature.
The sum includes cash from federal coffers, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, Aitkin County, Polaris, Yamaha and the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), which recommends the spending of lottery money.
"I have indeed seen a number of ATV trail applications and have been wondering what is happening," LCCMR Director Becca Nash said.
Bruce Beste is co-founder of Voyageur Country ATV, a grassroots group formed in 2015 with 66 supporters. Now serving more than 700 members, the organization has formed 250 miles of looping forested trails through Kabetogama State Forest and other public lands. The network includes a $1.17 million steel bridge over the Vermilion River, east of Orr.
"Our vision is 547 trail miles," Beste said. "We have seven new projects in different stages of design."
His group, which voluntarily completes environmental reviews, also applied for a Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment grant from Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission. Renee Mattson, executive director of the commission, said the application didn't make the cut but two other motorized ATV trails already are recognized as regionally significant, including the nearby Lake Vermilion ATV Trail.
"The trails have economic impact, there's no doubt about that," Mattson said.
Beste said he's experienced little opposition to his group's burst of trail building, largely because ATVs have become ubiquitous in the north. Like other ATV groups, Voyageur Country is loaded with volunteers who build and maintain trails, teach safety classes, monitor conduct and organize family-friendly group rides.
Preus, the DNR motorized trails chief, said she's been impressed with the dedication and accountability.
Trouble on the trails
But Minnesota's ATV culture isn't universally law-abiding. DNR conservation officers are reporting a continuation of illegal riding off trail, riding on closed trails, speeding, underage driving, trespassing and helmet violations. Last year, DNR Conservation Officer Amber Ladd of the McGregor area told the Star Tribune: "They're going wherever they want. ... I've never had this many issues or complaints."
DNR Enforcement Division Director Rodmen Smith said officers last year saw "extraordinarily high numbers of people riding off-highway vehicles." He said the new season has picked up where last year's left off. The Enforcement Division was allocated $2.63 million from DNR's off-road accounts to check ATVs, dirt bikes and 4x4 trucks — four times the money needed for the same purpose in 2003.
Four people have died in ATV accidents this year in Minnesota. Last year's toll of 25 ATV deaths was the most on record. But paved roads — not trails — are where the overwhelming number of ATV deaths occur, records show.
In the 2003 Legislative Auditor's report, when ATV riding was hotly debated in Minnesota because of destructive riding, the DNR was criticized for lax oversight and an inadequate trail system. The fix was for the state to build more places for people to ride.
Dan Wilm, a retired DNR forester, said that after the audit, the Parks and Trails Division at DNR started to impose its will on forestry lands. "Forestry lands seem to be playgrounds for them to make their trail system," he said.
Meanwhile, advances in ATV manufacturing prompted the Legislature this year to consider a higher weight limit on state trails — from 2,000 pounds to 3,000 pounds. Critics say it's evidence the environmental impacts of ATVs are outpacing conservation efforts to prevent rutting, soil erosion and sediment runoff.
At a Senate committee hearing, the DNR didn't oppose the weight increase. Assistant DNR Commissioner Bob Meier said the attitudes of drivers are harder on trails than vehicle weight.
New ATVs can top 85 mph. Minnesota-based Polaris advertises $30,000 side-by-sides with words like "brute strength" and "extreme performance." In a pitch this spring, the company said: "You love to push the boundaries, so we pushed our engineers to build the strongest RZR ever."
Polaris reported record demand last summer for its off-road vehicles and followed up in the first quarter of 2021 with an 80% sales increase.
Back at Nemadji State Forest, Mike Dahl is expecting another summer of spillover wheeler traffic on the gravel road in front of his house. He and his neighbors have resorted to road applications of calcium chloride to suppress the dust clouds.
The growing use of motorized trails is overwhelming the DNR's ability to manage the system for conservation purposes, he said. At Nemadji, some trails are so rutted they've been closed. Gone are the days, he said, when the forest was best known for grouse management and for producing the national Christmas tree for President Jimmy Carter.
"What I saw over my career was the motorized aspect really increasing exponentially," Dahl said. "Now it's almost seven days a week."