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BLACK RIVER FALLS, Wis. - As ATV enthusiasts flock to Wisconsin's 1,800-mile network of trails like never before, state officials predict the number of ATV users this year will outpace those on the beloved snowmobile for the first time ever.
They join fishing boats, personal watercraft and dirt bikes as part of a fascination with motor sports in all corners of Wisconsin.
Despite 25,000 miles of snowmobile trails in the state, tepid winters have slowed snowmobiling of late and helped sales of ATVs, which can be enjoyed in all four seasons, if riders hop on existing snowmobile trails.
ATV registrations have grown by 90 percent since 2000, according to the state Department of Natural Resources, while snowmobile registrations dipped by 1 percent in the same period. There were 215,417 registered ATV users in Wisconsin last year and about 6,000 more snowmobile riders.
But as their popularity grows, ATVs have ignited conflict over the use of Wisconsin's public lands and the peace and quiet of the forest.
"ATVs need space and distance, and it becomes a challenge with limited space and money," said Jeff Prey, a senior planner for the state Department of Natural Resources' parks and trails system.
And a patchwork of regulations allows for wide-open public access in some areas and strict limits in others. In southeastern Wisconsin, for example, the only public land that allows ATV driving is seven miles of trails at the Richard Bong State Recreation Area in Kenosha County.
A 15-year master plan there for the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest includes a proposed eight- to 10-mile loop in a part of the state where there are no public trails. The forest attracts 2 million visitors a year and covers a large part of Vilas County.
Mike Musiedlak of St. Germain, a mechanic who repairs boats, snowmobiles and ATVs. Believes opponents are downplaying the significance of the sport to northern Wisconsin's economy - it's estimated the average user spends $523 per trip.- end -