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Wedding bells for ATVers, environmentalists?

ST. PAUL - A compromise between environmentalists and off-road vehicle drivers may be in the works.

"This is a forced marriage," Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday approved a bill by Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, that would allow continued use of off-road vehicles in state forests, but provide more enforcement for regulations.

The bill attracted less aggressive opposition from both sides - environmentalists and off-road vehicle users - than most bills lawmakers hear on the subject.

Two parts of the bill, in particular, need further work before hitting its next committee stop, Chaudhary said:

-- A provision that allows part of forests to retain their "traditional use," with off-road vehicles not allowed, but it does not spell out how much land would remain off limits. Traditional uses include activities such as logging, hunting, fishing, wildlife watching and berry picking.

-- A program to fund volunteers - including those from off-road vehicle clubs - to report problems with trails and people who use them.

"I see those as focal points for further discussion," Chaudhary said.

In the past two decades, rules and laws have remained in flux about where all-terrain vehicles, four-wheel-drive pickups and off-road motorcycles may travel. Chaudhary's effort was to find a more-or-less permanent solution.

The Chaudhary bill would be a continuation of existing law that requires the state to decide how much off-road use is allowed in each forest. So far, 17 of the state's 58 forests have been evaluated. Forrest Boe of the Department of Natural Resources said he expects six of them to be mostly closed to off-road use and the other 11 to host limited use.

No forests north of U.S. 2 - where most of the off-road use occurs - have been evaluated, Boe said.

Ray Bohn, who represents off-road drivers, said the Chaudhary bill "is a good start." But he warned that the state already is taking away areas where off-roaders used to travel.

"We're losing about 60 percent of what is out there today," he said about forests the state has evaluated so far.

Chaudhary suggests that maps be distributed - and available on the Internet - for any trails off-road vehicles may use. Environmentalists said signs along trails are better than maps.

He also would require the state's natural resources commissioner to set an off-road vehicle season - which could vary in different parts of the state - so drivers could not travel off roadways in wet periods.

Bruce Cox, Clearwater County's land commissioner, complained about Chaudhary's plan to allow traditional forest uses to continue without off-road vehicle disturbances. He said that may be appropriate down the road, but not now. The rest of the bill is good, Cox added.

Mark Peterson of the Minnesota National Audubon Society chapter said preventing off-road vehicle damage is his group's No. 1 priority. He said motorized recreation is a threat to trail and animals.

"There are very few places we can go without hearing the drone of engines," Peterson said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.