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.”
Route defended again
A new environmental impact statement was prepared, this time with an elaborate sound analysis. In 2011, Neitzke issued another report recommending the route. “The sound impacts would only occur in the four winter months,” he wrote, and would not represent a dramatic increase in noise.
In August, the Izaak Walton League, Wilderness Watch, the Sierra Club Northstar Chapter and Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness filed an amended suit, saying their studies show the snowmobiles will still be loud and the trail “degrades the wilderness character” of the BWCA.
“We remain concerned about the noise impact but are also looking at the visual effect,” says Margaret Levin, Sierra Club Northstar state director. “The trail as planned cuts into a bluff and would be clearly visible from the BWCA.”
Nancy McReady of Ely, president of Conservationists with Common Sense, finds the environmental groups’ position puzzling. “According to the Forest Service, visitation in the wintertime is next to none,” she says. “It wouldn’t be a high-speed trail, you wouldn’t have a roar. It would be one or two snowmobiles at a time. … As for the noise, you have [Forest Service] planes flying over the Boundary Waters all the time. … I am hoping this trail gets built. This is getting beyond ridiculous.”
But Brandenburg argues that millions visit the BWCA annually for peace and quiet, not snowmobile noise. “We call it the trail to nowhere,” he says. “It’s for a few cabin owners who want a shortcut to their fishing lake.”
The alternate trail favored by environmentalists runs beside a road where snowmobiles could get hit by vehicles, the Forest Service says.
That route would require building a zigzagging trail up a steep hill for snowmobiles to climb.
“They would blast rock and cut brush and destroy — what kind of environmentalists are you?” says Diane Greeley, secretary of the Arrowhead Coalition for Multiple Use. She has one of about 40 cabins on McFarland Lake.
Proescholdt, the Wilderness Watch activist, concedes that bulldozing would be needed for the hillside route but thinks the Forest Service trail also will require heavy construction equipment, though advocates of that route disagree.
More to the point, he worries, the Forest Service route will set a precedent. “There is an old saying of death by a thousand cuts,” said Proescholdt. “There are threats to the BWCA all the time. All of these are cumulative harms to the Boundary Waters.”