Snowmobile trail plan at edge of BWCA causes legal rift

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2013 - 11:08 PM

Critics say plan violates quiet of the wilderness; others predict light traffic, minimal disruption.

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The trail would run about midway up along the Royal River bluff at right.

Photo: RICK BRANDENBURG • Special to the Star Tribune,

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For some residents of Cook County, the 2-mile snowmobile route proposed by the U.S. Forest Service is a no-brainer — a safe, direct link for cabin owners on McFarland Lake to the fish-rich waters of South Fowl Lake on the Canadian border.

But for environmental groups, the plan is a boldfaced attack on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, with one part of the route only 400 feet away from the federal parkland’s border. They imagine the rumble of snowmobiles piercing the solitude that makes the 1.1 million acres in northern Minnesota so special.

The legal dispute has gone on for eight years, gaining little statewide attention, but embroiling advocates on both sides in what has become a classic confrontation over the BWCA, which is managed by the Forest Service.

“It is a struggle between the longtime local residents to replace an historical trail they have used for years, and the outside groups,” says Rhonda Silence, editor of the Cook County News Herald, referring to the environmental organizations. Those groups, she says, “are just causing a lot of hard feelings for the people who live on the lake, and the ice fishermen who want to catch a walleye, to ride a trail to their favorite fishing spot.”

Snowmobiles are almost entirely banned in the Boundary Waters, and restrictions on motorized vehicles there have been a flashpoint for decades. The fight over the trail, which has been stalled in the legal system while the Forest Service conducted a complex noise analysis, returned to federal court in August. Both sides will meet in court in January to map out a pretrial schedule.

The proposed trail would “introduce new snowmobile sounds to the wilderness and from some angles it will introduce the sight of snowmobiles to the wilderness,” said Kevin Proescholdt, conservation director of Wilderness Watch, which wants the route rejected. “It will be incredibly loud, far noisier than it is now.” The group argues that the trail would be a violation of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which requires the Forest Service to protect the character of the BWCA.

‘It was a mess’

The fight over the snowmobile route dates to the winter of 2002-2003 when Forest Service rangers discovered people were using an illegal trail through the BWCA to get from McFarland Lake, where the ice fishing is not so good, to South Fowl Lake, where it is much better. “We went to investigate and we found snowmobile tracks and ATV tracks all over” Royal Lake, inside the BWCA, says Rick Brandenburg, a retired Forest Service ranger. “It was a mess.”

Brandenburg said he was ordered by his supervisor to ticket people, which upset the locals who had used the route for years. Some residents called the Forest Service to complain.

Even some Forest Service employees used the route, Brandenburg said he learned. He said he was told by the Forest Service to back off and stop issuing tickets.

The Forest Service, he says, eventually put up a fence to stop the snowmobilers. “The fence was completely ineffective. People went around it. … There was two more years of illegal use after that.”

In 2005, Brandenburg and another ranger decided to issue tickets. There was a confrontation when they tried to stop a line of about 10 snowmobilers using the illegal route.

Most got past them, but he says he was able to knock one man off his snowmobile and take his key. After that, armed Forest Service law enforcement officers were brought in and they ticketed eight snowmobilers. The illegal snowmobiling stopped, he says.

After examining alternatives, Dennis Neitzke, the Gunflint District ranger, proposed the route that runs just south of the BWCA that’s now the target of the lawsuit.

“He wanted to be in good standing with a section of the local population that likes to do motorized recreation and don’t necessarily like the rules that prohibit it,” says Brandenburg.

Neitzke, who now works for the Forest Service in North Dakota, argues in Forest Service documents that the proposed route is better than a much longer, more southerly route favored by environmentalists that requires snowmobilers to climb a steep, treacherous hill to South Fowl Lake.

The environmental groups sued in 2006 to block construction. In 2007, U.S. District Judge John Tunheim concluded that the potential sound impact to the BWCA required “a more thorough analysis.”

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