REGIONAL— Six years ago, the Legislature directed the Department of Natural Resources to develop a motorized touring route from the North Shore of Lake Superior to the North Dakota border, …
REGIONAL— Six years ago, the Legislature directed the Department of Natural Resources to develop a motorized touring route from the North Shore of Lake Superior to the North Dakota border, utilizing an extensive network of existing highways and back roads. Tower and Ely are both included along the route.
The idea was to provide a designated route for motorists – including those who prefer off-road vehicles like four-wheel drive trucks and all-terrain vehicles – who could 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 trail.”
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.
Critics of the Border-to-Border Touring Route are asking for a closer examination because of a host of potential problems, including runoff from dirt roads into lakes and streams.
Creating touring options
In 2015, the Legislature directed the DNR to designate an off-road touring route across northern Minnesota and to work with the Minnesota 4-Wheel Drive Association on identifying possible potential routes. The DNR subsequently hired the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council (NOHVCC) to help it plan the 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 in adjacent Lake County.
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 Trail, 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.
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 Grand Marais paper that some of the roads along the route, built for loggers a century ago, are inadequate for heavy vehicles.
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.”