On a sunny Saturday in June, a fleet of ATVs motored into the woods of north-central Minnesota for a day of four-wheeling fun and pig roast called the "Pork and Ride."

The procession of riders on the outing, sponsored by an ATV club called the Over the Hills Gang, stopped on their way to the Moose River Trail. Most left their machines for a short hike. But three riders reportedly steered their ATVs off the trail into a pond fringed with cattails, roaring through it until the fragile wetland was a muddy mess.

A few weeks later, members of the same club hopped on ATVs to ride the same trail, but in a much different role. They were "Trail Ambassadors," handing out brochures on safe, responsible ATV riding. The Over the Hills Gang was paid $34 an hour for its two-man patrols -- by the state.

Such payments, totaling $250,000 a year, are a new strategy that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources hopes will reduce the damage that some riders are doing to forests and wildlife habitat.

But the government aid to rider clubs also has become a flashpoint in the debate over how the DNR should confront the challenge of ATVs, which are filling Minnesota forests in larger numbers than ever before.

"It's pretty discouraging," said DNR conservation officer Cary Shoutz, who is investigating the reported wetland damage during the club-sponsored ride.

"Here we have clubs that are supposed to be promoting good things about riding ATVs responsibly, and they're actually doing different when they're out there, where nobody can see them," Shoutz added.

In July, representatives of two conservation organizations resigned as advisers to DNR's Ambassador program, saying they were frustrated with the DNR's off-road policies.

But the DNR official in charge of the Ambassador program defended it and the club, saying the fact that the agency even found out about the illegal riding was a sign of progress.

"I see this as an example of something that did happen, that shouldn't have happened, that wasn't hush-hushed," Capt. Mike Hammer, the DNR education program coordinator, said of the wetland damage. "It was brought to the attention of authorities so we can deal with it. ... People are starting to step up and take responsibility in their local areas and clean this stuff up."

Indeed, Shoutz said he got a call about the incident shortly after it happened, but not from a club member. The witness who tipped off the DNR told the Star Tribune he was simply along for the ride and didn't know the culprits. He said he was unwilling to speak publicly because it might cause him trouble in his work.

Meri Lysne, president of the Over the Hills Gang ATV Club, first denied to the newspaper she knew anything about the incident. Later in the same interview, she conceded that it happened.

"If three people go off into a wetland on a designated trail ride, what are you supposed to do? Shoot them?" she said. More recently, she added, the club has discussed the matter but "as far as I'm concerned, this subject is null and void."

In Minnesota, riders of ATVs, dirt bikes or off-road trucks seldom faced sanctions for such acts until 2003, when new state laws took effect. A Star Tribune analysis of DNR data found that officers now ticket or warn about 439 ATV riders a year for violating natural-resource laws, though that is just a fraction of the violators. Riders usually are long gone when officers discover eroded hills, illegal trails and tire-tracked wetlands.

ATV registrations tripled in the past decade to 264,000 last year. To deal with problems, the DNR has stepped up ATV enforcement, closed trails, documented damaged areas and, this year, trained 69 people sponsored by 12 rider clubs to patrol trails under the Ambassador program.

Out on the trail

Perry May squinted in the summer sunlight as he drove an ATV along the Moose River ATV trail in Land O' Lakes State Forest. He stopped, swung a leg over the seat of his Arctic Cat 500 to dismount and pulled out a GPS device.

"There's some off-trail traffic happening here," he said, referring to where tall grass, daisies and Indian paintbrush had been flattened in tire tracks leading to an old logging road.

Another rider, Ken LeVoir, marked the scene by writing down the GPS coordinates and tying orange tape to a tree branch. That would alert the DNR to a potential trouble spot.

LeVoir and May, members of the Over The Hills Gang ATV Club, are enthusiastic riders who were among the first to volunteer for weekend Trail Ambassador training. The program is modeled after a similar effort in Wisconsin that has earned praise there for improving rider behavior.

The Ambassadors can't enforce ATV laws. But they are encouraged to call a conservation officer if they witness unsafe or destructive ATV use.

May and LeVoir, who weren't along on the June ride under investigation by the DNR, spent a Sunday in July motoring down the trail as Ambassadors. Their uniforms were fluorescent yellow and orange vests, and they handed out brochures and maps, not tickets.

Where two trails met in the forest, three young dirt-bike riders pulled up and stopped at the sight of the men on the ATVs.

"This area is closed to motorcycles," LeVoir said to them.

"We didn't see the signs," came the reply.

Then May jumped in. "We are not enforcement officers," he said. "So we are just trying to explain, you know, compliance rules and that. This trail system isn't marked as well as it should be and we'll definitely report that to the DNR."

The bikers, on the other hand, wouldn't be reported to a conservation officer. They drove off.

LeVoir said he thought the three dirt-bikers made an honest mistake. The rules can be confusing, he said, and his approach is "to give people the opportunity to do it the right way" before calling an officer.

Although Ambassadors are volunteers, each of their hours on the trail earns $17 for their club. The club can then reimburse volunteers for expenses such as gasoline, according to the program rules.

One rule limits ATV Ambassadors to riders sponsored by clubs that belong to the All-Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota (ATVAM). It is a statewide group that has lobbied the Legislature for more trail funding and against tougher regulations and enforcement. Ambassadors also must be certified to teach ATV safety training classes under a separate DNR program.

Ken Irish of Inver Grove Heights, the group's president and a founder of another rider club in Crow Wing County, was one of the first Ambassadors to complete the DNR training program. Though he had been nabbed by a conservation officer in 2003 for illegal ATV riding, the offense didn't disqualify him from the outreach program.

"I got caught -- I'm not ashamed to say it," said Irish, who was ticketed, and paid an $80 fine, for riding on a posted non-motorized trail in the Crow Wing State Forest. He also got a ticket in 1999 for riding an unregistered dirt bike.

Irish said the 2003 ticket taught him a lesson and got him involved with the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders, an ATV/dirt bike club, to push for legal places to ride. "I took a positive approach," Irish said.

The DNR's Hammer agrees. He praised Irish, and expressed no concerns about a handful of other trail Ambassadors whose violations of fish, game or other regulations turned up in DNR background checks. Unless people have "gross violations," such as a driving while intoxicated, or patterns of less-serious offenses, they are not excluded from the program, Hammer said. So far, no one has been turned away from the Ambassador program because of a background check, he added.

"Somewhere along the line they may have screwed up," said Hammer, who believes the Ambassadors will help discourage illegal, destructive riding.

Skeptical of riders

Nobody is quite sure who screwed up at the June 7 "Pork and Ride" fundraiser and trail ride.

Before a pork barbeque, more than 100 ATV riders took off in groups for trail rides. In one group, riders parked their ATVs at a shallow pond just off the trail, and most of the group walked away to see the ruins of an abandoned homestead, according to the witness who alerted the DNR. Several riders stayed behind, including three who drove back and forth through the pond and surrounding cattails for the next half hour, the witness said.

When the others returned, the witness said, the pond had been turned into a "slough of black mud" and one ATV was stuck. The group pulled it out and rode on. The witness said he didn't know the riders who entered the wetland, or whether they were club members.

Audubon Minnesota and the Jack Pine Coalition, two groups that support more regulation of ATVs on public lands, are skeptical that rider groups are a solution to illegal, destructive driving. They say the start-up funds for the Ambassador program should be used to hire more conservation officers instead.

"There is no sense in having people who are associated with other people who are breaking the law trying to police them," said Susan Solterman, policy director for Audubon Minnesota.

Solterman and Gene Larimore of the Jack Pine Coalition, a loose collection of outdoors enthusiasts, briefly served on the DNR's advisory group for the Ambassador program. But they grew frustrated with the DNR's rules, and resigned in protest in July.

"There was no opportunity for advice," said Larimore, who believes the Ambassador program does little more than hand over public money to rider groups.

He and Solterman said they believe state law required the DNR to include non-motor groups in the program. They said conservationists, hunters and other outdoors enthusiasts should be allowed to serve as Trail Ambassadors to promote conservation and environmental protection and also bridge the gap between rider and non-rider groups.

Hammer of the DNR said the department is "not trying to include or exclude anybody." He said Larimore and Solterman quit before giving the program a chance to succeed.

Hammer and other conservation officers believe ATV rider clubs can help promote responsible behavior, just as snowmobile clubs did in that sport 25 years ago. Yet that view is not universal within the department.

Shoutz, the officer who was first contacted by the witness to the Over the Hills Gang incident, said that ATV club members are unlikely to turn in friends for illegal riding. The witness who reported the incident was not a club member or in the Ambassador program.

"I'm in one of the busiest ATV areas in the state and I have not received one complaint from an Ambassador about anybody," Shoutz said. • (612) 673-7090 • (612) 673-7388

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