Minnesota audit raps state’s trail efforts

Minnesota ranks as one of the top half dozen states in terms of sales of ATVs, but the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has done a poor job of developing a system of trails for off-highway vehicles (OHV). At least that’s what the state’s Legislative Auditor said in a report it released last month.
The 136-page report is especially noteworthy, given Minnesota’s standing as a leading ATV state. The discussion surrounding the report and the weak management of OHV activities in the state is the same type of conflict that could develop in other areas of the country.
Last April, the Minnesota Legislature’s Audit Commission authorized the Legislative Auditor to examine funding, enforcement and environmental review of off-highway recreation trail programs.
Nearly 1,300 field staff of the state DNR were sent surveys and asked to comment on the state’s management of trails. Only one-third of the DNR participants rated the department’s OHV enforcement as “good” or “very good.”
At the same time, two-thirds of them rated the DNR’s enforcement of snowmobiles as “good” or “very good.”
The report noted that Minnesota has 18,941 miles of designated snowmobile trails, but only 953 miles of designated OHV trails.
OHVs can use another 6,000 miles of undesignated trails in state forests and an additional 1,600 miles of forest roads.
“Overall,” write the report’s authors, “we found that while DNR’s management of snowmobile trails has served Minnesota relatively well, the department needs to improve its management of OHVs.”
Major findings
Here are the major findings of the study:

  • Efforts by the DNR to plan an OHV trail system have been inadequate. “DNR was slow to initiate a planning process, and once started, the process lacked key elements,” write the report’s authors.
  • The state has consistently devoted relatively less enforcement time to OHVs than snowmobiles, “even though OHVs generally have a greater impact on the environment and have a longer season than snowmobiles.”
    In the last five years, notes the report, the DNR has spent 26% less time enforcing laws and rules related to OHVs than to those related to snowmobiles, on a per vehicle basis.

  • The DNR and local governments have provided little oversight for the grant-in-aid programs, leaving snowmobile and OHV clubs to operate largely on their own, but the extent is not known.

The Audit Report makes several key recommendations, including:

  • The Minnesota Legislature should require environmental assessment reports on many OHV projects.
  • The DNR must develop a better understanding of the number of miles of trails that its budget can support. In other words, the DNR doesn’t know how much of a trail system it can afford to maintain and monitor.
  • The DNR should spend AT LEAST as much enforcement time per vehicle on OHVs as it does on snowmobiles.
  • The DNR should improve the oversight of snowmobile and OHV grant-in-aid programs.
  • The Legislature should reexamine the way that it allocates portions of gas tax collections to each type of motorized vehicle — snowmobile, ATV, dirt bike and 4X4 truck.

The DNR responded to the Audit Report by saying its goal since the 1990s has been to encourage “managed use on managed trails. We don’t believe we gave short shrift to environmental concerns in our planning process.”
Bottom Line
Unfortunately, Minnesota’s government officials charged with protecting the environment have not been doing the job. Because they haven’t developed an OHV trail system to meet the needs of the estimated 150,000 ATV riders in the state, a small group of riders have driven wherever they pleased, tearing up property and enraging landowners and environmentalists.
It’s time, before the situation gets further out of hand, to regulate OHV use the way the state has regulated snowmobile use. So it works for everyone involved.

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