By sarah Smith, Park Rapids Enterprise
Opposition is already mounting, and emotions are running high on both sides of a proposed off-highway vehicle trail through the Schoolcraft State Game Refuge in northern Hubbard County.
The public comment period begins Monday and runs through Aug. 14. Both ATV riders and ATV opponents are lining up support to lodge their comments to the Minnesota DNR.
The Schoolcraft Trail, which likely will be used primarily by ATV traffic, runs through a breathtaking stretch of wilderness, near the Schoolcraft River, on existing trails used for logging trucks and snowmobiles.
“We chose that location because of the jackpine sand on the soil,” said Cindy Dudley, president of the North Woods Riders OHV Club, which spearheaded the drive to designate a trail that would link up to the Blue Moon Trail nearby. “It can be easily repaired if it gets damaged.
“It’s taken us seven years and already cost us $10,000 in grant money due to the opposition,” she said. “We get that grant-in-aid to take care of it,” she said. Delays and opposition to the project cost trail sponsor Hubbard County the funds, which ended up going to a Beltrami trail project, Dudley said.
The majority of the 29-mile project through the Paul Bunyan State Forest can be legally traveled by ATVs already, said DNR Trails & Waterways Area Supervisor David Schotzko.
But that doesn’t appease members of the Headwaters Canoe Club, who took a tour up the Schoolcraft River Tuesday evening.
“That is the worst thing that could possibly happen to this area,” said Jerry Trout, a canoeist from Hackensack, one of 20 that made the trip.
“They have a proclivity to go in the water,” said canoeist Gary Lyall of the ATV riders. “They just can’t help it.”
“Those trails are several hundreds yards from the river,” Dudley maintained. They are not readily visible from the river, much less accessible to the water’s edge, she maintains.
“They’re worried that a renegade rider will go into the water,” Dudley said of the opposition. “There’s an unbelievable incline” that would be dangerous for a rider to attempt, she said, and her club can’t predict what other riders might do – or ward against it.
The opposing interests create a delicate balancing act for the DNR, and especially Schotzko, who walks a tightrope between them.
A member of the canoe club, he says the two interests can co-exist. And he’s already heard from both sides in the debate to finalize the trail plans.
“These are earthen trails they’ve been able to ride a long time,” he said of the Schoolcraft Trail.
He said the DNR has not heard of any misuse of those existing trails, or riders illegally entering public waterways.
“We have enforcement officers out there,” he said. “Internally we don’t want that to happen either.”
He said as long as riders stay on the trail routes, they’re hardly visible to people using the river because of the high grass and vegetation. Hunters can also use the trails. The Schoolcraft area is reserved for bow hunters exclusively.
The club members who made the river trip Tuesday were joined by three kayakers. They were enraptured by the scenery even before launching.
A pair of deer scampered in the water chasing each other, tails wagging. Wild irises were in the late stages of bloom, adding a lavender touch to the riverbanks.
“It’s like you were out in the wilderness,” said Tony McKeown of Nevis. “It’s pristine. It’s hard to find a river to paddle that doesn’t have trash. It makes a difference.”
A bald eagle followed Lyall and Trout down the river, they reported at a bridge on County 118 where they portaged. They saw nearly a dozen deer along the route.
McKeown worries that ATV traffic near the river will cause bank erosion and other environmental damage.
North Woods Riders hold classes to educate young riders and help them successfully obtain their ATV licenses.
“We respect the environment, the water, the wetlands,” said Dudley. “This is a place where you could go to take a nice ride, have a nice picnic.”
She wonders why the outdoors should be the under the exclusive control of one interest group and pointed out “the area already has three conservations and a deputy to enforce it.”
Schotzko said the DNR welcomes comments and will take them all into consideration, even though some canoeists expressed doubt their opposition would count.
“This is not an all-or-nothing situation,” Schotzko said. “We can work with the county to alter the plan” if necessary. “Comments help us. There are a lot of people out there with a lot of knowledge.”
He said the purpose of the public comment period is to tweak any objectionable or potentially problematic sections of the trail.
ATV riders theoretically already have access to the river from the numerous bridges crossing it, and there have been no complaints about vehicles in the stream, he maintained.
Opponent Barry Babcock said the canoeists photographed tracks and damage near the riverbed while out paddling Tuesday.
He e-mailed photos of track damage to the Enterprise and Schotzko, along with a photo of debris piled up against one riverbank.
“We surmised that the debris in had been used to provide traction for ATVs somewhere along the river,” he wrote.
“Note that the ATV club demanding these trails say there will be no riding in the river because the bank is too high,” Babcock added.
“Since when would a steep bank prevent ATVers from riding on it?” he questioned.
“We want to be the first ones” to hear about damage, Schotzko maintains. He’d prefer not hearing comments through the media. “If people are breaking the rules, going off the trail,” they are subject to fines, he said, and the DNR needs to be notified.
Just as the public debate gets spirited, Schotzko admitted to Hubbard County commissioners last month the agency had similar internal differences as to how the opposing constituencies should be juggled.
Comments should be sent to him at the DNR office at 6603 Bemidji Ave. No., in Bemidji, 55602, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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