COOK COUNTY, MINN – His Jeep Wrangler lurched over protruding rocks and wobbled atop potholes on forest back roads as birch and pine scratched at his windows.
Amid the rough ride, Scott Benolken found peace. In the bouncing truck, he could release the stress of the day and bask in the sights — blooming wildflowers, babbling streams and maybe, if he got lucky, a moose.
“It’s kind of my meditation,” he said.
But too many trucks treading on that overgrown, two-track road could threaten the serenity of the North Woods, a popular destination for hikers, campers, anglers and skiers, some fear.
A deep divide over motorized vehicles in the wilderness is erupting anew across parts of Minnesota’s vast and beloved recreational northland, all over what at first glance seems small: Putting up signs to mark a route for four-wheel drives that would stretch across more than 900 miles of back roads.
The proposed “Border-to-Border Touring Route” is slated to wind from North Dakota to Lake Superior as soon as 2019. It is designed for drivers of highway-licensed vehicles across a network of public roads, including many low-maintenance forest roads, township, county and state roads. The state Department of Natural Resources, overseeing the project, expects to make a final proposed alignment available this fall.
Proponents say the route will be a boon for tourism, attracting families as well as people who can’t get into the wilderness other ways. And by marking the route, drivers will be less likely to get lost and wander onto private property.
Opponents worry that promoting a route will bring caravans of new traffic, noise, invasive species and destruction, and that it will become an extra burden for local law enforcement as well as drive away tourists seeking quiet.
It comes down to a “social values conflict,” said Ingrid Schneider, a Forest Resources professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied recreational uses of public lands. Just imagining destruction and noise from motorized vehicles is enough to upset those who value quiet, she said. “For some people, knowing motorized use is happening is upsetting without even seeing or hearing them.”
Trails for everyone
Trails for snowmobiling, ATV riding, biking, hiking, cross-country skiing and horse riding already snake like veins through northern Minnesota.
But trails or designated routes for larger, highway-capable four-wheel drive vehicles such as Jeeps and Land Rovers — popular in the Western United States — are not as common. Minnesota has only about 30 miles of off-road trails designated for large vehicles, accessible with a DNR sticker, said Mary Straka, the DNR’s off-highway vehicle program consultant.
In 2015, the Legislature directed the DNR to work with the Minnesota 4-Wheel Drive Association to “address off-road vehicle touring routes and other issues related to off-road vehicle activities.” A fund from a gas tax paid by off-road vehicle drivers, as well as money raised from the stickers, would cover the cost of route-marking and some maintenance.
Proponents contend the legislation mandates establishing the Border-to-Border route. But opponents argue the language isn’t that specific and routes and trails could be built in old mine pits and other less intrusive places.
But supporters of the route say not all drivers are interested in those types of courses. They stress that the proposed route is not designed for ATVs, although the smaller vehicles will still be allowed on roads where they can already go.
The issue has taken on a particularly divisive tone in the tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead, where federal and state forests make up more than 90 percent of Cook County land and tourism accounts for more than 80 percent of the economy.
Martha Marnocha loves leaving her rural Cook County home and hiking or bicycling on the thick-forested back roads with her dogs.
“It’s quiet. It’s pristine. It’s wilderness,” she said. “Undisturbed wilderness is really rare anywhere in the United States. That’s one thing Cook County still has … accessible.”
She and others are not opposed to the occasional four-wheel drive passing through, she said. They just don’t want too many.
“Anybody right now … if they have a vehicle and maps, is free to go out and drive any of these roads. We are not against that,” she said. “It’s just having them be an advertised, inter-state route that is of concern. … The worry is about caravans.”
Nobody really knows how much more traffic a Border-to-Border Route would bring.
Dan Larson, a lobbyist for the Minnesota 4 Wheel Drive Association, said they believe that “pass-through” areas, where no local attractions are promoted, would see only 10 to 15 more vehicles a week.
Opponents fear it could be far more. Regardless, they say, many of the proposed roads aren’t built for more traffic.
They worry that wet spots on the roads will develop ruts and widen over time and fear that the vehicles will spread invasive species across the state. They also dread drivers who might go off-road and rip up the countryside.
“We ride responsibly. … We ride with low impact, socially and economically sound and a small footprint,” Larson said. “We know that one bad actor is going to undo a lot of the good work that we’ve done.”
Boon or bust?
Another plus for the route, proponents say, is the economic boost it could provide for communities — especially those less-traveled.
The International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce encouraged proponents to explore using local back roads to direct four-wheel drive enthusiasts to their community near the Canadian border.
“Not a lot of people make … that extra effort to go beyond a Duluth or Ely or Bemidji to come up here,” said Tricia Heibel, chamber president. “We have what we feel are very pristine outdoor recreation areas to explore as well.”
But in Cook County, route opponents worry that too many motors will repel quiet-loving tourists.
There is no recent data showing how much each type of trail user spends in Minnesota, the U’s Schneider said. “I don’t think anyone would dispute the spending per trip may be higher by motorized groups,” she said. “However … the volume of riders is low. Thus the economic impact is low.”
Larson said more trails and routes would change that: “If you make more places to ride available, they’ll come.”
While a DNR website describes money set aside to “help support local road maintenance on the touring route,” some locals question how much will be covered and how local governments will get it.
Clearwater County Commissioner Dean Newland said his board decided the potential for damage wasn’t worth it and passed a resolution opposing it.
“We live in a small farming community, quiet community, and we want to keep it that way,” he said. “They talk about, that it’s going to bring all this economic development to our county. I don’t believe that’s going to happen. … What kind of economic development in the middle of the farmland?”
Straka said they are accommodating Clearwater commissioners’ wishes and putting the route on paved highways there.
In neighboring Beltrami County, Commissioner Keith Winger said the board has not taken a stance on the route, but he put it on last week’s agenda after learning about a possible “phase two” for the project.
“If all it is is designating a route … no big deal. I think it would be fun to drive it, to be honest,” said Winger, who added that the board is seeking comment from each township along the route. “But if in phase two if they start designating places for off-road activities … then I think it has the potential for some issues.”
Larson said phase two will involve local governments that want to connect their businesses or attractions to the route.
Benolken, who recently started the “Tread Lightly Off-Road” group in Grand Marais, said the image of drivers has been distorted.
As he eased his Jeep through the bumpy terrain on a recent evening, Benolken said many riders simply want to escape into nature, sometimes with friends. If they see fellow drivers misbehaving, they will call them out, he said. His group will also help with litter cleanup and road maintenance, he said.
Most riders wouldn’t speed through remote areas and risk breaking down in inaccessible spots, he and others said.
Stan Tull, a Cook County resident for 18 years, drove behind Benolken in his 1999 Isuzu Rodeo. He said he doesn’t imagine a touring route posing as much of a problem as opponents fear, and thinks there are more important issues for locals to tackle.
Part of the issue, he said, stems from the division between longtime locals and newcomers from the city. “I just don’t like that ‘I’m here now, shut the gate’ ” attitude, he said.
Denny FitzPatrick, a retired U.S. Forest Service employee who lives in the area and opposes the route, said he, too, thinks the issue has become too divisive.
Many route opponents aren’t against off-road vehicles; most people who live in rural Cook County own one, he said. It’s the potential volume that is causing worry.
“It feels like a zoning issue,” he said. “There’s a legitimate use, it just doesn’t belong on our fragile back roads.”