Hikers, bikers and ATVs

“Southeast Wisconsin loses 87 square miles of farmland and forested areas each year to road building and sprawl,” says the Sierra Club. In Places in Danger they name the Wisconsin Ice Age National Scenic Trail as a target for support, “…working with local groups to permanently protect the Trail corridor and promote smart growth planning by local governments to preserve farmland, forests, wildlife habitat and the Ice Age Trail.”

At the same time trail access in a much broader sense is also the target of advocates from the Wisconsin ATV Association and pressure from enthusiasts, equipment dealers and a growing number of local ATV clubs around the state.

In a February 2004 advisory referendum, Vilas County voters rejected a proposal by local ATV clubs to build a trail system that would link it and other counties to trails in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

More recently, ATVs have been at the center of controversy over a new, 15-year master plan for the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest, which attracts 2 million visitors a year and covers a large part of Vilas County. The DNR is proposing an eight- to 10-mile loop. The trail would accommodate a burgeoning sport in a part of the state where there are no public trails.

Jim Knuth of Presque Isle, a self-described Republican who owns a snowmobile, is active among a group of residents who oppose ATVs in the state forest because they believe it will mean more noise and destruction of the land.

More significantly, “it’s the toe in the door they want so badly,” Knuth said of ATV proponents. “They want Vilas County, period.”

“For better or worse, all-terrain vehicles are quickly passing the snowmobile in popularity,” says Milwaukee Journal reporter Lee Berquist. “Recent attempts to add trails in Wisconsin have been controversial. State, county and federal land managers are finding themselves in the middle of pitched battles over how best to include – or exclude – the machines from land because of the damage they cause.”

Of greater public concern should be the fact that tax dollars collected from the sale of ATV registrations and gasoline sales are “donated” by the Wisconsin legislature to help grow the sport. Berquist explains…

Since 2001, about $1 million has been paid in state contracts to the National Off-Highway Vehicle Insurance & Services Group Inc. to promote safety and ethical riding. The group, which has an insurance consulting arm as well, is a non-profit organization aligned with the Wisconsin ATV Association. Both are based in Sheboygan.

The two groups are headed by Randy Harden, a missionary of sorts, who put 40,000 miles on his car last year to promote the sport and champion ATV safety.

“I want to change the industry,” Harden said. “We have made some gains, but the infrastructure has got to be there.”

The national group recruits and trains safety instructors and so-called trail ambassadors with the aid of public dollars. The ambassadors are volunteers who have attended safety training instruction and are willing to stand guard on trails to warn riders of illegal riding or report transgressions to authorities. About 600 ambassadors have been trained, but only about 10% to 15% actively work the trails at busy times such as weekends, Harden said.

Harden and his wife, Ann, split one job for the national group and share a $68,688 annual salary. Their son Adam and another employee split another job and are paid $73,308 a year, according to DNR records. Five regional coordinators are paid $1,000 to $2,200 per month, plus travel expenses.

The payments to the national group are unprecedented – there is no similar program for snowmobiles, mountain bikes or personal watercraft.

Harden acknowledged he gets complaints from some ATV riders who don’t like the meddling, and from advocates of quiet sports who question the propriety of doling out money to a single user group.

As of June 1, 2005 there were 220,171 ATVs publicly registered, according to the Wisconsin ATV Association, up from about 215,000 registrations in 2004. An additional 61,908 private and agricultural ATVs, used on private properties and farms, were registered by June 1.

Approximately 1,000 miles of mountain bike trails in Wisconsin state parks, forests, recreation areas, and unsurfaced trails on former rail lines are available. Brigit Brown, state trails coordinator for the DNR, says there are about 4,000 miles of ATV trails available at different times of the year throughout Wisconsin – far short of the 22,000 to 24,000 miles of snowmobile trails in Wisconsin.

Today the Baraboo News Republic reports, “Plans for ATV trails on 580 acres of county land near Highway 14 between Spring Green and Lone Rock stalled last spring after the Sauk County Board voted not to pursue a state-level grant until more public input had surfaced, said Steve Koenig, county parks director.”

The Wisconsin Vehicle Safety Enhancement Grant includes the “Ride Smart – Get Involved -Tell Others” program, all about maintaining and increasing ATV riding opportunities in Wisconsin. Back in 2003 WATVA began pressing for more money… “In the previous two year period the ATV grant requests exceeded available program revenue by close to 1.3 million dollars! There is no doubt whatsoever that Wisconsin needs additional miles of new ATV trails at the same time managing and maintaining the existing ones in a sustainable and environmental responsible manner.”

I don’t doubt that the need for new trails will continue to grow as long as we keep spending tax dollars to fuel the expansion of this so-called sport. Meanwhile… A 49-year-old Kenosha man died Saturday in Lac du Flambeau after an ATV rolled onto him. A 5-year-old girl died Sunday at Saint Michael’s Hospital in Stevens Point after the ATV she was riding on with another girl and a 34-year-old Pine Grove man flipped over on them.

Instead of legislators seeking to promote greater ATV use and expand trail access the public would be better served with firmer restrictions on ATV use. Let’s start with age-appropriate restrictions – much like cigarettes. Llmit the false advertising that beckons potential riders to undertake what amounts to destructive off-trail excursions and require additional warnings that ATVs are a threat to human health. With obesity, ozone and oil dependency plaguing the nation motorsports are a fuelish waste of energy.

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