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Northern forest ATV use OK'd, with limits
Nicolet trails to be built only if rules followed
 All-terrain vehicle use will be allowed in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest so long as riders stay on a limited number of posted trails and roads, the U.S. Forest Service says.

If they don't, the Forest Service will not build another 185 new miles of ATV trails that would include 85 miles in the Nicolet National Forest, the first in that forest, said Phil Barker, recreation program manager with the Forest Service.

The Forest Service made its revised ATV policy public this weekas part of its 2004 Land and Resource Management plan. Trails will remain open, but all forest roads will be closed to ATV use until the Forest Service posts signs designating some as being open, Barker said. That likely won't happen until next year at the earliest, meaning riders will be barred from roads until 2005.

The recent boom of ATVs in Wisconsin - there were 200,515 registered ATVs last month - left the Forest Service ill-prepared for increased ATV use that left some areas of the forests severely damaged.

The policy, which likely will eliminate hundreds if not thousands of unofficial routes for ATV riders on existing and former national forest roads, is bittersweet, said Randy Harden, president of the Wisconsin ATV Association.

To tourists who ride ATVs, closing former roads won't matter much, he said. They prefer trails that are mapped and posted with signs. It's the local ATV riders who know the forests well who will be most disappointed.

But the Forest Service needs to balance other recreational uses of the forest, too, such as the silent sports of hiking, mountain-biking and canoeing, said Sally Hess-Samuelson, a planner with the Forest Service.

There are 9,000 miles of forest roads in the Chequamegon-Nicolet, some that are being used and some that are not, Hess-Samuelson said. The Forest Service is trying to eliminate some roads to minimize the threat of invasive exotic species being introduced by motorized vehicles and to limit disturbances of the forests' wildlife.

ATV use hinders efforts to let a forest road go wild again, Hess-Samuelson said.

The Forest Service's first priority is to close a high-intensive ATV play area near the town of Washburn in Bayfield County, because too much vegetation is destroyed, Barker said.

New trails will be constructed probably within three to five years, but only if ATV riders obey the new forest rules.

The Forest Service says it is counting on ATV riders to police themselves, because there are too few forest rangers to keep up with ATV use on the 1.5 million acres within the forests established in 1933.

The Wisconsin ATV Association has already certified 400 ATV riders to patrol trails, Harden said. And by the end of the year, it hopes to have 500 certified. Although they don't have the authority to write citations, trail patrol ambassadors try to educate riders and use peer pressure to stop unwanted behaviors. If necessary, they report people who abuse trail rules to law enforcement.

Harden said he will assign patrol this year of Chequamegon's 284 existing miles of ATV trails - Nicolet has none - especially near the high-intensive area in Bayfield County.

"We need people out there to try and explain, because some people are going to be irritated," he said.

Harden will meet with the Forest Service on Fridayto discuss its reasoning regarding ATV use within the forests.

Some groups have opposed any ATV use in the Chequamegon-Nicolet, Hess-Samuelson said.

Others, like Partners in Forestry Cooperative, were glad to see it restricted to designated trails and roads.

"They are opening up Nicolet - that will remain to be seen how orderly that comes about," said Joe Hovel, a Vilas County resident and board chairman of Partners in Forestry.

His group successfully opposed ATV use in Vilas County forests this year along with Northwoods Citizens for Responsible Stewardship in part because of ATV damage to the Chequamegon. Hovel, 55, owns a small sawmill and lumber manufacturing business that's dependent on sustainable forests, including those in the Chequamegon-Nicolet.

Partners in Forestry is concerned about soil erosion, damage to the forest's water quality from that erosion and invasive species that could severely impair Wisconsin's forest product industry.

"We're not an environmental group by any means," Hovel said.

Composed: 05/10/2004 | Modified: 05/10/2004

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