Thanks to sweeping appropriations finalized last month by the state Legislature, Minnesota's all-terrain vehicle boom will grow to new dimensions over the next two years behind the strength of more than $13 million in spending.
The appropriations — all from a Department of Natural Resources account funded by all-terrain vehicle registrations and other ATV user taxes — will speed the buildup of a growing universe of motorized trails in northeastern Minnesota. Starting during next year's construction season, a number of separate trails will connect with one another to start forming a giant web of forested corridors meant to attract ATV enthusiasts from around the country
St. Louis County Public Works Director Jim Foldesi said the evolution of motorized trails will continue next week when a new three-county joint powers board meets for the first time. The board will unite motorized trail planning in St. Louis, Lake and Koochiching counties, he said.
"We want this to become a national destination trail network just like they have out West,'' Foldesi said.
He said ATV riding clubs throughout the Arrowhead gave rise to new trails by attracting major financial support from the Legislature, other governments and ATV manufacturers. In some cases, the awards expired before construction could begin.
"The individual efforts by the clubs have been great,'' Foldesi said. The joint powers board will establish construction priorities, take over planning and "get it all under one roof,'' he said.
One-time grants approved by the 2021 Legislature include $955,000 to the city of Ely for new trail connections that will include a bridge across the Beaver River to connect the new Prospector Trail System to Taconite State Trail. Another $950,000 was granted to St. Louis County for expansion of the Voyageur Country ATV Trail in the areas of Cook, Orr, Ash River, Kabetogama Township and International Falls.
Lake County received $1.3 million from the Legislature to further develop the Prospector trail and St. Louis County received $1.9 million for construction of an Iron Range trail championed by the Quad Cities ATV Club.
The total two-year package includes some money that was previously appropriated, but wasn't spent by the award deadline.
Ron Potter, president of ATV Minnesota, a nonprofit umbrella group for ATV clubs, said the overall spending approvals will allow for trail completions and key connections between trails. The unified system will be big enough to provide users four or five days of riding if they wish, he said.
"We were happy with the outcome,'' he said. "Everything we had was funded according to the master plan.''
According to the DNR, Minnesota's active ATV registrations have grown to include more than 324,000 machines, a 36% increase from 15 years ago. Riders have access to 2,875 state trail miles — a more than 100% jump since 2005. Additional motorized trails lie on federal and county lands.
The growth in trails and traffic has given rise to criticism that the DNR is turning a blind eye to environmental damage. Motorized trails also are crowding out hunters, birders and other outdoor enthusiasts, the critics say.
Willis Mattison, an ecologist who formerly worked as a regional director for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, was among the objectors to this year's ATV spending.
In a June 16 letter to Gov. Tim Walz, Mattison called for a veto of expansion projects. He wants the money redirected to conduct a statewide master plan or environmental impact statement "on motorized recreation in general.''
This year's Legislature approved $250,000 for DNR to write an ATV trails master plan and $75,000 for an off-highway motorcycle trail plan, but Mattison and other critics say those approaches don't account for cumulative effects and don't address "the big picture.''
Dan Wilm, a retired DNR forester and a member of Citizens for Sustainable Off Roading, said his group also asked Walz to "hit the pause button.''
The largest block of ATV spending by the Legislature appropriated $1.96 million a year for the next two fiscal years for ATV trail maintenance provided by clubs. The new amounts for the so-called Grant-in-Aid program are 44% larger than they were just two years ago, a direct reflection of the surge in ATV riding.
"It's significant,'' said Paul Purman, state trail consultant with the DNR. "There's a lot of growth going on.''
DNR conservation officers were outspoken last year about a rash of ATV riding violations, including off-trail excursions, speeding and trespassing. The new spending package doesn't provide those officers with new dedicated funds for enforcement, but it does grant $1.2 million over two years to "county law enforcement agencies for off-highway enforcement and education.''
Another safety aspect provides $500,000 over two years for qualified trail ambassador programs. Ambassadors are ATVers who monitor trails for safety and provide environmental education to other riders.
Potter said last year's spike in complaints about rogue riders was related to the coronavirus pandemic. He said it produced an explosion of new riders at a time when trail ambassadors were shut down.