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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Hikers losing ground

As ATV use has spread, forest trails have become untenable for walking


Social media has its uses. Unfortunately, it tends to generate more heat than light.
That was certainly the case with a recent post on the Facebook group, “What’s Up Tower MN,” that took issue with a decision by the city of Tower to close two very short segments of trail on the hillside north of town that saw occasional use by ATVs along with a roughly mile-long trail segment that has seen little ATV use in recent years.
The two short segments, which are no more than a few hundred feet long, have been mostly ignored by ATVers as well because they were both dead ends. That made them of little interest to riders, particularly because there were miles of other inter-connected ATV trails on the northside of town. That’s where the vast majority of riders spend their time, and still can because those trails remain open to ATV use.
Of course, there’s nothing that will spur interest in a trail— no matter how short or uninspiring— like a rule that says to stay off it. And with social media there to fan the flames of discontent, almost anything can be turned into a source of grievance.
In this case, the closure of these segments generated the usual complaints that those behind it simply hate ATVs and want to favor tourists over the locals who like to ride their ATVs.
Such arguments, sorely lacking in context, are typical on social media. So, here’s the rest of the story. As we’ve reported previously, local volunteers helped create the Pine Ridges Trail, a narrow footpath through some of the spectacular pine groves and overlooks on the hill north of town. The trail utilizes two short dead-end segments of old forest road that had seen very occasional ATV use over the years, and these are the two segments that the group behind the new trail, the Wagoner Trail Club, asked to have closed to motorized use.
Another longer segment of trail runs around the base of the hill and had fallen into disuse by deadfall recently until it was cleared by the trail club. Having cleared it, club members were justifiably concerned that ATVs might start using it again, which would soon make it far less desirable for hikers.
What ATVers might not recognize is that the use of heavy, motorized machines on forest trails quickly renders them difficult for walking or hiking because they create deep ruts and mud as their tires churn up the soil.
That’s not just hypothetical. The hill on Tower’s north side has already seen extensive rutting and erosion from ATV use, and it has made portions of those trails difficult to walk, particularly when conditions are wet. Significant amounts of crushed rock and gravel have had to be added by the city to harden areas of the trails that ATVs had turned into deep mud holes.
In the right conditions, the damage caused by ATVs is limited and can be mitigated, but as ATV use has increased on the north side of Tower, the deterioration of the trails, that were once popular for walking, is readily apparent. The bottom line is that ATV use is not compatible with trails designed for hiking because they can quickly render them unfit for those on foot.
And, while ATVers might not recognize it, there are still substantially more walkers than riders, even among local residents. A comprehensive trails plan developed by the city and Breitung township included a survey that asked respondents about their trail use. Nearly 45 percent of the 200 people who responded said they used trails in the Tower area at least weekly and three-quarters used them at least monthly. And the vast majority of those respondents were from either Tower or Soudan, not tourists.
When asked how they use the trails, 69 percent cited walking, while 52 percent cited hiking and 53 percent said they use bicycles. Thirty-two percent indicated they use ATVs or other off-road vehicles.
Given the dramatic rise in the use of ATVs in our region, and the likelihood that ATV use will continue to increase in our area when the new state OHV campground opens next year, there clearly has to be some ability to protect the rights of the majority of local residents who aren’t using ATVs but simply want to have the ability to walk, hike, or mountain bike on forest trails without having to dodge ruts, mudholes, and OHV drivers going too fast.
If there is any group of users that is, effectively, being shut out from many of our forest trails, it is those who prefer to walk rather than ride. And that’s unfortunate.