DNR Reclassifies First Two State Forests for OHV Use

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An ongoing process to better manage recreational activities on Minnesota's public lands recently marked a milestone of state and local cooperation with the reclassification of two state forests in regard to their use by off-highway vehicle (OHV) operators.

Effective July 1, the Pillsbury State Forest in Cass County west of Brainerd will be classified as "closed" to OHV use. The nearby Foot Hills State Forest will be classified as "limited" for OHV operation effective Dec. 31. The two forests are the first to be reclassified under 2003 legislation requiring the DNR to evaluate 54 state forests and determine how to balance motorized and nonmotorized recreation and access with the conservation of natural resources.

Under the "closed" classification, no use of OHVs is allowed, although vehicles licensed for operation on public highways are allowed on forest roads and minimum maintenance roads. Forests classified as "limited" restrict OHV use to forest roads and trails where signs specifically indicate that a particular type of OHV is allowed. OHVs include all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), off-highway motorcycles (OHMs) or "dirt bikes," and off-road vehicles (ORVs), such as Jeep CJs and four-wheel drive trucks.

The designation of Pillsbury and Foot Hills state forests represents the culmination of nearly two years of work. During that time all forest trails and roads were inventoried and mapped, environmental concerns were evaluated, and public comments were gathered. A number of modifications were made to both plans in response to concerns brought forward during the public review period.

"We were able to address many of the public concerns and make some adjustments to designated routes to make sure all users' interests were represented in the final plans," said Jack Olson, a DNR planner based in Brainerd. "As we move ahead to reclassify other forests, we need to continue involving the people affected by these decisions."

The Foot Hills and Pillsbury state forest plans were developed by a team of local DNR staff working closely with officials from Cass County. As a result of that cooperation, county lands within the boundaries of the two state forests will be subject to the same rules governing motorized use as adjacent state lands.

"The Cass County Board and the Department of Natural Resources have a great working relationship; we share the same land and trail management philosophy," said Cass County Land Commissioner Norm Moody. "I think the really important outcome of the forest reclassification and route designations is ease of use for motorized recreationists. The DNR and county were able to agree on a unified plan for the county and state lands in the area."

The 2003 OHV legislation mandating forest reclassification arose in response to the growing popularity of OHVs amid public concerns that unmanaged use on state lands would negatively impact natural resources and cause conflicts with nonmotorized recreation. By designating a system of managed trails, officials believe the potential for such problems will be minimized.

The process to evaluate all state forests for OHV use is expected to take until the end of 2008. Criteria used to decide where OHV use is appropriate include the potential for damage to vegetation, wildlife, wetlands and other sensitive natural resources; existing motorized use patterns within a forest; and the proximity of other motorized and nonmotorized recreational opportunities.

"These first two forest reclassifications are significant in themselves, but they're also important as an example of how this process is meant to function," said Craig Engwall, the DNR special assistant to the commissioner who is spearheading the reclassification effort. "If we can engage in a constructive dialogue with local government and other interests, we'll succeed at managing our public lands in a way that provides a range of recreational opportunities, while being good stewards."

For more details about the ongoing reclassification process for state forests, or for other information on OHV riding opportunities, including maps of designated forest roads and trails, visit the DNR's Web site.