Preventing Off-Highway Vehicle Damage to Aquatic Habitats

Preventing Off-Highway Vehicle Damage to Aquatic Habitats

By Jeff Brown, Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation

Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation (MRR) was founded in 1996 to give a united voice to those concerned about the hazards to people and the environmental damage caused by motorized recreation. MRR is unique in the Great Lakes Region in our mission to restore, protect and preserve peace and quiet, fresh air, personal safety, and a healthy environment on Minnesota’s trails and waterways by addressing motorized recreation concerns.

Our Duluth based group was born out of a local struggle to stop development of a cross-town snowmobile trail along our Lake Superior shoreline. The noise, fumes, danger to others, and runoff into the lake sure to result from the estimated 20,000 snowmobiles that the trail would annually bring, stimulated two years of city and statewide citizen outrage concluding in an unprecedented victory. Through massive public outcry we were able to convince Duluth city council to halt this development. MRR’s founding victory reverberated as far as Anchorage, Alaska, whose city assembly also voted down a cross-town snowmobile trail.

MRR’s initial victory taught us a number of important lessons. Motorized recreation was considered by public officials to be a “sacred cow” not to be evaluated or challenged. An illusion of economic dependency on snowmobile and All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) dollars had served to isolate this activity from any kind of critical inspection. While we often heard of purported benefits there was a complete absence of factual information about the costs and unwanted impacts of these machines. We increasingly discovered that many people and the land were suffering in silence; that there was no voice, forum, or resource to which people could turn.

Then in 1998, MRR’s steering committee was confronted with a new and growing form of motorized recreation – all-terrain vehicles, dirt-bike motorcycles, and four-wheel drive trucks – so called “off-highway vehicles” or “OHVs.”

Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was developing an “OHV System Plan” template to promote the use of these machines on public lands statewide. Duluth steering committee members, while confident about our local abilities, were initially intimidated by the daunting task of challenging not only the motorized recreation lobby, but also the DNR in St. Paul.

Minnesota and states surrounding Lake Superior contain many of the Upper Midwest’s finest trout streams. Many flow directly into Lake Superior. Increased OHV use can have a direct impact on the aquatic habitats of many of these trout streams and the wetlands and lakes they drain.

OHVs often cause substantial compaction to and erosion of the soils on which they travel. Displaced soil typically finds its way into waterways, resulting in increased sedimentation and turbidity in waterways. This increased sedimentation and turbidity can negatively impact numerous aquatic organisms, including fish species that rely on spawning beds, susceptible to being covered up by sediment. Travel dir/html> ectly through rivers, streams, wetlands, and lakeshores has a direct impact on aquatic species and their habitat. Oil and antifreeze leaks as well as the emission of other toxic fuel additives directly onto the ground or into the water are other concerns.

From 1999 through the end of 2000, it became MRR’s task to document the unwanted impacts of OHVs and the policies and practices that wittingly and unwittingly promote them. Beginning with a small group of ten steering committee members in Duluth, MRR called upon established environmental groups to join in data collection. Over the next year grassroots participation swelled to as many as a hundred MRR members and other volunteers who contributed photos, public documents, research, and scholarly writing to the project.

Given the great vacuum of information, the absence of any forum for meaningful public participation, and the DNR’s determination to promote and accelerate use of these machines, Minnesotans exasperated by pervasive OHV damage responded to e-mail, newsletter, and public meeting requests for involvement with the project. In the end, MRR member volunteers united to produce MRR’s nationally recognized, landmark, evidentiary report Off-Highway Vehicles in Minnesota.

MRR’s report objectives included educating the public, media, and public officials about OHV damage to forests and wetlands. We knew that by January 1, 2001, the DNR commissioner was to sign-off on a “permanent classification system” for our state forests that could potentially provide these machines with open access. We hoped that our report would convince the commissioner to restrict this access.

Collaborating with other groups, MRR scheduled a meeting with the commissioner to discuss report recommendations. In the weeks prior to this meeting we worked extensively and successfully behind the scenes with print, radio, and TV media to release the report in conjunction with this meeting. We had provided the DNR with an advance copy of the report for verification of factual content. Sadly, despite our year’s worth of work and solid documentation, the DNR chose to permanently open 48 of Minnesota’s 53 state forests to OHVs without public comment or notification. We live today with the accumulating impacts of this decision.

Still, MRR did accomplish significant goals. Today MRR’s report and public education efforts have stimulated heretofore-absent public discussion and debate about the place of OHVs on our landscape. In 2002 MRR referenced the report in convincing the legislature to audit the DNR’s motorized trail program. The Office of the Legislative Auditor released its audit in January, 2003, exposing the institutional root causes of unwanted OHV impacts and corroborating the findings and recommendations in MRR’s report. Currently, the DNR’s Trails and Waterways Division that promotes motorized recreation, and is largely subsidized by motorized recreation gas-tax funds is being reorganized in response to the audit and MRR’s long-term efforts.

MRR began with the question “Where are OHVs damaging the watershed?” As photos of OHV trails through streams and wetlands poured in from around the state we concluded with the question “Where are OHVs not damaging the watershed?” In MRR’s founding years GLAHNF support for Off-Highway Vehicles in Minnesota encouraged us to expand our vision and voice. Today MRR is working with members and groups in Minnesota and Wisconsin to produce a second edition of our report on CD.

Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation Jeff Brown
PO Box 111
Duluth, MN 55801-0111

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.