Participants gather

Participants gather at the Soo Line Trail Access on Maddy St. in McGregor prior to riding to the Lawler Loop. The Soo Line is like a freeway that connects the loops and side trails that have more local features and challenging terrain.

Trail system enhancements support recreation and economic growth

Aitkin County Land Department (ACLD), County adminstrators from Aitkin, Pine, Crow Wing and Mille Lacs counties, the All Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota (ATVAM) and all-terrain vehicle (ATV)  clubs gathered on Sept. 6 to talk about the data being collected on Aitkin County’s ATV trail systems, and to take a group of twenty-plus on a tour of a section of the system near Lawler.

There are 311,000 registered ATVs in the state of Minnesota; that is a 23% increase since 2016, said Perry May, Vice President of ATVAM.

Puncheon bridges

Puncheon bridges made of floating wood slatted panels are used to protect wet areas of the trail from damage, and make the system more accessible to riders.  

Apart from the Turnock Loop in Lawler, all of the miles of trail in the system are on state and county land, said Ed Peterson of the Mille Lacs Drift Skippers ATV Club.

The purpose of the field day was to show the quality of Aitkin County’s trail system, and to encourage neighboring counties to consider the importance of connections and special areas that provide the kinds of experience riders are seeking. Aitkin County is a destination for ATV riders, who come to the area looking for riding experiences, but they also need places to stay, to eat, and to purchase fuel and  services.

Counting Users

Chris Johnson, Dennis Thompson and Ross Wagner

Chris Johnson, Dennis Thompson and Ross Wagner, all of the Aitkin County Land

Department, organized the event and spoke about the system and the county’s data collection efforts.

Aitkin County has purchased a number of counters that record ATV traffic on five trail segments in the county.  As the data come in, county land managers have been impressed with the number of users they are seeing.

Trail Specialist Chris Johnson with ACLD shared some of those dates with participants in the tour last week. For the year to date (2019) a conservative estimate of Northwoods ATV use is 2,000-3,000 individual ATVs on the six sites that were counted. That amounts to about 12,000 users for the months of May-August.

The Axtell challenge site saw 1,673 users in the first week of September 2019.

Sue and Ron Carlson

Sue and Ron Carlson from Rockwell City, Iowa, attended the field day. They have been coming to the area for ATV vacations since 1988. They usually stay in Moose Lake or Sturgeon Lake and access the trails on the east side of Aitkin County. Their son and his family were also at the event.

Johnson said the county will continue to add counters, because the data they are collecting are so useful in communicating the value of the investment that has gone into building, upgrading and connecting the trails. It is also useful in communicating with the legislature about the need for additional funding, and with adjacent counties, about the benefits of collaborating to connect trails to make a more extensive system.

System Benefits

In response to a question, Johnson said that the improvement in the trails system and the construction connectors and more challenging loops  has reduced the amount of off-trail riding. This has reduced the amount of damage in the forests and wetlands by about half, he said. Much damage to sensitive areas and erosion has been reduced as well. Keeping riders on the trails also reduces the potential transport of invasive plant species seeds and plant parts into forests adjacent to the trails, where they could otherwise become established.

A number of people commented on the benefits to families of having an activity they can all do together in the outdoors.

Economic benefits to communities from trail-based recreation are also well documented.


There are five ATV clubs in Aitkin County, said Frank lin Turnock, Lawler, who belongs to the Evergreen PAC Club. These groups organize planned outings that really benefit small towns, said May. Members gather to eat at local restaurants, stay in motels and buy fuel while on their trips. Those dollars multiply in the local economy, often one of few ways outside dollars come in to smaller towns along the trail system.

“What’s missing now is a coordinated statewide plan,” said May, We’re working on that.”

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