Communications Empower Citizens

Communications Empower Citizens

By Jeff Brown, Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation – Lake Superior Basin

Situated at the “head of the Great Lakes” and mouth of the St. Louis River, Duluth is in the city forester’s words,“a city on a hill with clay soils and many streams”. In 2004, a Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund grant helped Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation (MRR) protect this vulnerable landscape and its wetlands and streams along 27 miles of Lake Superior shoreline. That year, citizens and the city of Duluth chose to prohibit ATVs, dirt-bike motorcycles and four-wheel drive trucks on all public land in the city.

MRR was founded with a mission to protect peace and quiet, fresh air, personal safety and healthy trails and waterways from the noise, fumes, danger to others and environmental damage caused by motorized recreation. Central to our success has been the effective use of graphic communications to document off-road vehicle damage and to inspire citizens and public officials to support better protections of our environment.

Communications Raise Awareness about the Unwanted Effects of Motorized Recreation

MRR sees collecting evidence as primary in any effective campaign. To protect shorelands and waters from ATV damage, MRR works to empower citizens with solid information and tools to do just that.MRR produced a landmark report in 1996 that was the first statewide comprehensive documentation of the widespread extent and nature of ATV damage to Minnesota’s public and private land and waters, and the policies and institutions that allow such damage to occur. The report provided undeniable evidence and continues to be introduced as evidence in court cases, environmental review petitions and public comment. The report also encouraged the Office of the Legislative Auditor to audit the DNR’s motorized recreation program.The audit has widened public scrutiny of motorized recreation and found that vehicle users damage forests and wetlands without accountability.

Recently, the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund provided MRR with financial support to include a wetlands protection toolkit as part of a larger motorized recreation resource library on compact disc. The CD will include the most current edition of MRR’s Off-highway Vehicles report, tools for identifying wetlands, documenting off-road vehicle damage and use of restoration analysis forms. Additionally, the CD/DVD will include information and tools such as “Easement Education”, how to petition for an Environmental Assessment worksheet, how to request public data and the 2003 Legislative Audit of the DNR’s Motorized Recreation program. While release of the CD has been delayed until later this year, numerous components of the CD were used in 2004 citizen victories to protect wetlands in Duluth and elsewhere.

To truly empower Minnesotans to protect our land and water from the unwanted effects of off-road vehicles, MRR’s CD/DVD will also include an introductory slide show of images, music and poetry that shares MRR’s values, mission and vision. MRR anticipates that much broader distribution of MRR’s CD/DVD will generate a whole new era of informed and empowered public discussion, debate and reform. In addition to campaign communications, weekly meetings were organized to build consensus that all communications with city officials and the media would focus entirely on the value and importance of our green space and wetlands as opposed to focusing on the desire for access among ATV operators. As part of this effort, citizens were trained in the use of digital cameras, global positioning system units and an “ATV Damage Repair Analysis” form to gather data documenting ATV damage to wetlands and streams throughout the city. A single page of captioned ATV damage photos was distributed to city councilors including estimated costs of repair.

Although Duluth’s ordinance passed, MRR recognized that new laws without compliance are a hollow victory. As a result,MRR purchased a mailing list from the state of all registered ATV, dirt-bike motorcycle and four-wheel drive truck owners in the city and sent them a Friendly Reminder postcard to inform them of the new law. To hold trespassing ATV operators accountable, MRR also developed a citizen’s “Off- Highway Vehicle Monitoring Form” and distributed these forms throughout the city to empower citizen “watchdogs”. These forms provide on-going data regarding where, when and sometimes who is trespassing on public land with off-road vehicles and what contact was made with city police.

While effective communications played a central role in MRR’s Duluth victory in 2004, similar communications also succeeded in protecting wetlands along the Mesabi Trail bikeway and North Shore State Trail. These campaigns assembled citizen data with petitions for public and environmental review of newly proposed ATV routes and caused proposals for ATVs on or near these trails and adjacent wetlands to be withdrawn.

Utilizing MRR’s “ATV Damage Repair Analysis” format and bringing together student interns, city staff, and leaders from other organizations, MRR is currently engaged in a systematic city-wide assessment of ATV damage to wetlands and streams. The data will be presented on a GIS map to city councilors and the mayor to identify aquatic habitats most threatened by past and/or current ATV (now illegal) use.The goal of these communications will be to generate support for funding repair efforts and better enforcement of the new ordinance to protect local wetlands.ATV wetland damage maps will also be used in grant applications to a coastal zone management program to protect the west end of Lake Superior from soil run-off.

MRR’s CD Protecting Minnesota from Motorized Recreation: A Resource Library and Toolkit will be available soon. It is expected that the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund support to distribute MRR communications will once again encourage statewide replication of MRR’s success in protecting wetlands from off-road vehicle damage. Watch MRR’s website, www.MnResponsibleRec.org for release of our CD.

By Jeff Brown, Executive Director
Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation
PO Box 111, Duluth, MN 55801
218-740-3175 • info@MnResponsibleRec.org

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