Six years after the Legislature directed the Department of Natural Resources to consider more motorized touring routes, the agency is moving ahead with one that would stretch from the North Shore of Lake Superior to the North Dakota border, utilizing an extensive network of existing highways and back roads.
The idea is to provide a designated route for motorists – especially those who prefer rugged vehicles like four-wheel drive trucks – who can drive across northern Minnesota, experience the state’s natural beauty and, perhaps, camp and stop in some small towns along the way.
“Definitely, one of the selling points was that (the route) would connect people to places they wouldn’t ordinarily see, to some other outdoors opportunities,” said Andrew Brown, a DNR project manager based in Grand Rapids.
With the help of a consultant, and after public hearings in several communities, the DNR settled on a 750-mile Border to Border Touring Route that it plans to soon mark with signage and begin promoting as an “adventure route.” (While the route is not designed for smaller vehicles like ATVs, they will still be allowed on roads where they already can be driven).
The project has met with resistance, however, with calls for the DNR to further evaluate the route’s impact on the environment and for the state to find other ways to enhance off-road sightseeing, such as through the expansion of motorized recreation parks. Last year, the Sierra Club, the Izaak Walton League and other environmental groups asked the DNR to conduct a formal environmental review – known as an environmental assessment – of the project, arguing that the potential for damage – especially to lakes and streams – needs to be better understood. The agency declined those requests.
In February, a group called Citizens for Sustainable Off-Roading (CSOR), which includes cabin owners, year-round residents, wildlife biologists and others, delivered a petition to the DNR requesting the environmental assessment. In a press release, the group said it believes “there are better alternatives available than increasing high-impact travel on forest road systems that are often poorly maintained and not designed with today’s standards for environmental protection in mind.”
A member of the group deferred questions about its position to Willis Mattison, a retired regional director of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency who has advised the group on the project. He told MinnPost that the dispute is an example of the longstanding tension between motorized recreation and traditional activities like canoeing and hiking. While both are legitimate pursuits, the DNR, in his view, has favored motorized sports at the expense of the environment in recent years. “Motorized sports and silent sports – that’s the line of demarcation,” he said.
Creating touring options
The Legislature directed the DNR to work with the Minnesota 4-Wheel Drive Association on identifying potential touring routes. The DNR subsequently hired the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council (NOHVCC) to help it plan the B2B project.
Over three years or so, Brown said, project planners met with county and township boards, road authorities, American Indian tribal leaders and others before settling on the route. The DNR evaluated the route and determined that an environmental review was not needed. All of the roads that will be part of the route already exist, he noted.
“We engaged in a pretty robust outreach to these counties and communities,” Brown said. “For those communities that expressed [concerns about the project], we have honored that and moved the route. We are not cramming this down anyone’s throat.”
To that end, the route was moved out of Clearwater, Hubbard and Cook counties after discussions in those regions.
Cook County was dropped from the route after county officials shared their reservations with project planners. The eastern edge of the route was subsequently moved to Silver Bay, 55 miles to the south along the North Shore in Lake County. (The western-most point of the route is St. Vincent, a village in Kittson County).
David Mills, a Cook County commissioner, said some of the questions commissioners had about the project mirrored the concerns of the citizens group that has filed the latest environmental assessment request.
“What is the maintenance plan? How is this going to be funded long-term? Do we have an idea of longer-term costs?” Mills said. “There didn’t seem to be as much information readily available as there could have been (in the public meetings), so it seemed natural” for the county to be bypassed.
Mills said he is not necessarily opposed to the route passing through Cook County and could see a spur eventually extending into the county. At any rate, he said, moving the origin of the route to Silver Bay makes sense because there is more all-terrain vehicle activity in that region. “We want to welcome all walks of life here and we respect how people want to recreate,” Mills said. “The challenge is how to get people to play well together.”
Ron Potter, the executive director of the NOHVCC, did not respond to email and phone messages asking for comment. Dan Larson, a lobbyist for the Minnesota 4-Wheel Drive Association, also did not return a phone call.
Managing the route
Minnesota Parks and Trails, a division of the DNR, is developing a plan to implement and manage the settled-upon route, a process that will include more opportunities for public input, Brown said. The process could take months, if not a few years.
A DNR fund created by fees on off-road vehicles will cover the cost of the planning and also support local road maintenance, according to the agency.
CSOR, the citizens group, argues that the route needs a closer examination first because of a host of potential problems, including runoff from dirt roads into lakes and streams and the potential for invasive species to reach the region. Without that assessment, any management plan will be flawed, the group says. Better yet, the state could invest in the expansion of off-road recreation parks, such as the Iron Range Off Highway Vehicle State Recreation Area in Gilbert. (Here’s a link to other off-road trail proposals the DNR has completed in recent years).
While its request is being reviewed, CSOR is keeping up the pressure. On March 26, Dan Wilm, a group member and retired DNR forester, argued in a column in the Cook County News Herald that some of the roads along the route, built for loggers a century ago, are inadequate for increased traffic.
If the DNR rejects its request for an environmental assessment, the CSOR could take its case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
Mattison, the retired MPCA official, understands the stated reasons behind the touring route. More economic activity in remote regions, more recreation options, more exposure to the natural environment – those are all good things, he said. But beware the cost.
“The tourism industry needs to welcome motorized recreation, but it also needs to protect the natural environment for the silent sports,” Mattison said. “The thinking needs to be long term.”