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Here’s mud in your eye - Progress 2019 - A Closer Look - MessAge Media: Outdoor Recreation

Here’s mud in your eye

Here’s mud in your eye - Progress 2019 - A Closer Look

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Posted: Saturday, March 30, 2019 5:00 am

Aitkin County is experiencing an influx in ATV and off-highway vehicle (OHV) riding on its designated trail systems. In the past nine years of having the 213 miles of Northwoods Regional ATV Trails up and running, the Land Department reported much usage.

“You could ride all week and not see the same grounds,” Recreation Specialist Chris Johnson said.

The Land Department has purchased six seismic counters to install on trail systems to collect data on specific types of usage. The information gathered will come in handy when applying for future grant funding, Johnson said.  

With limited funds, Land Commissioner Rich Courtemanche said the county intended to focus on keeping up with current trails maintenance; however, the demand to expand persists.

In 2016, there were 3,597 ATVs registered  in the county, and 6,348 ATVs registered in the state, indicate Aitkin County was the area of primary use, according to the Sheriff’s Office.  

“This community has embraced the Northwoods ATV trail system. It has been a growing process,” Courtemanche said.

Townships opened up gravel roads and last year, the county followed suit and passed an ordinance allowing ATVs to travel on county gravel roads. In another project, County Road 3 included a designated trail in the ditch. This designated trail opens additional recreation opportunities for funding to maintain and sign these areas, Courtemanche explained. As a trail, legal riders of all ages and both classes of ATV can now utilize County Road 3.  

Two years ago, county trails were expanded to include the Axtell Technical Riding Area near McGregor. A free wash station is also located at Berglund Park in Palisade to help reduce the spread of invasive species.

In 2014, Dovetail Partners surveyed 12 local businesses in Aitkin on the economic impact of nearby trail systems. All of the survey participants said their business has increased since the development of the ATV trails. The majority of the increase has been in the summer and fall months due to the increase in ATV riding during the trail riding season. Overall, many of the businesses said the trails have brought a family-friendly environment with people visiting the county and using the trails.  

“That is one of the reasons the Mille Lacs Lake area is looking into interconnectivity within systems,” Courtemanche explained.

District 10B Representative Dale Lueck and others recently helped secure $1.5 million in bonding to connect the communities and resorts of the Mille Lacs Lake area to the Northwoods Regional ATV Trails.

Crow Wing County also inquired about connecting its trails to the Northwoods Regional ATV Trails in an effort to market the entire system as a whole, as opposed to individual segments.

Crow Wing County is taking the lead on the project in collaboration with the Over the Hills Gang, Courtemanche said. The first disbursement of funds was received to build the trail, adding two miles to connect Aitkin County to the 37-mile Blind Lake ATV Trail System.

“The Soo Line Trail is the backbone. It is a straight route that brings riders to the more exciting trails, and also gets riders to goods and services in the community,” Courtemanche said.

Riders must carefully plan their trips before embarking out on the trails as some segments have long distances between access to amenities like food and gas.  

The interconnectivity of the trail systems benefits communities like Palisade because riders can access goods and services without having to trailer their vehicles. In the future, trails may connect to Emily, Deerwood, Malmo, Grand Rapids, Remer and Glen.

After Aitkin County’s ATV and OHV trails were designated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the county found through an in-house study that damage and land management of trails had improved.

A trail ambassador program offered through the DNR provides volunteer enforcement of the trails to inform the public of the rules and regulations. While trail ambassadors have no ticket-writing authority, they serve as a presence on the trails, and notify the county of damage and undesired trail usage to ensure safe riding.

The DNR provided funding through grant-in-aid, and companies such as Yamaha and Polaris provided grants and machinery for maintenance of the Northwoods Regional ATV Trails.

The Land Department acts as a fiscal agent, overseeing and distributing funding to five local ATV clubs that each help to maintain segments of the trail system.

The clubs make up the Aitkin County ATV Alliance, which meets quarterly to discuss issues and topics that pertain to the trails. “It’s a supportive ‘Think Tank’ that helps improve the communication between the different groups,” Courtemanche said.

A wide variety of equipment is utilized to groom the trail systems, such as brush cutters, low pressure dump trucks on tracks to avoid impacting sensitive soils, backhoes, skid steers, bulldozers, and ATVs with a drag. Clubs can receive reimbursement for maintaining their segments of the trail system.

“As the physical size of machines increases, larger ATVs are finding navigation of the trails more difficult,” Johnson said.

Many bridges and trails must be retrofitted to accommodate the width of larger OHVs for safe riding. The county recently applied for a $500,000 grant, which would help modify the trails for larger vehicles.  

“It’s hard to sit still,” Courtemanche said. “Each year, we’re seeing more usage and vehicles hitting the trails. Despite our efforts to control and plan for the growth of the trail, the genie keeps popping out of bottle.”

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