The downfall of the game and fish bill, vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton recently, always was seen as a possibility. Again this session, legislators overreached in the measure, fancying themselves professional fish and wildlife managers, more so even than those who actually are. And any reasonable governor might respond to these hijinks by withholding his signature.

Still, a major reason Dayton nixed the game and fish bill couldn't have been predicted.

In his view, and in the apparent opinion of Minnesota-based Polaris and Arctic Cat, and other all-terrain vehicle (ATV) manufacturers, as well as the Department of Natural Resources, the bill as developed by a Republican-dominated conference committee came down on the wrong side of an argument over what differentiates Class I from Class II ATVs -- and therefore on what types of trails the two can be ridden.

To understand, rewind to the first part of this year, when the DNR and the state's various ATV players, including representatives of its major riders group and manufacturers, met to develop proposed ATV legislation.

At issue primarily was the legal maximum size in Minnesota of ATV engines, which was 960 cubic centimeters or less. Bombardier in particular -- a Canadian company -- had a problem, because, according to the DNR, it wanted to sell machines with 1,000-cc engines.

ATV manufacturers continually push the envelope on motor size and overall ATV design, and often need legislative adjustments of this kind. And states usually accommodate them. So this wasn't a particularly novel request.

But the DNR-led ATV consortium also considered another issue, recognizing that ATV sales today are less dependent on traditional-style machines that riders straddle (Class I). Rather, bigger ATVs in which riders sit side-by-side (Class II) -- sometimes two in a front seat and two in a back seat -- are, some say, the future of the industry. Or at least a big part of it.

Consider a machine called the Ranger RZR, made by Polaris, a sporty two-passenger side-by-side with a high snazz quotient that is selling at a relatively fast clip. Among its unique characteristics, it measures only 50 inches wide, significantly less than most other Class II ATVs.

According to the DNR, Polaris wanted the RZR categorized as a Class I machine -- therefore allowing it to be ridden on the approximately 10 percent of state trails largely restricted to those types of ATVs.

Such trails are often quite narrow and challenging, the equivalent of Black Diamond runs on ski mountains.

Developing its legislative proposal, the DNR/rider/manufacturer group agreed to define Class I machines not by their weights and engine sizes, as was the case previously (and still is, with Dayton's veto). Instead, the group proposed that Class I ATVs be those that can be straddled, or are 50 inches wide or less.

But a problem arose. Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, whose garage contains three three-wheeler ATVs and three four-wheeler ATVs (none by Polaris), wasn't included in the talks. And Hackbarth doesn't want side-by-side machines on the state's approximately 110 miles of Class I trails, saying, in part, the machines are too wide, and therefore bad for the environment, because they'll often be driven off-trail.

"I've been riding ATVs since 1972,'' Hackbarth said Thursday. "I ride all the time. Allowing side-by-side ATVs on Class I trails will ruin them.'' And, he says, ruin the challenging trail-riding experience some straddle-machine ATV owners want.

Hackbarth argued during the session that Class I ATVs should be straddle-only. But he couldn't get a bill passed. So in the conference committee that resolved differences between the House and Senate game and fish bills, on which he was a major player, he inserted language defining Class I ATVs as straddle-only.

The ATV industry swiftly asked Dayton for a veto. They, above all others, are aware the Polaris RZR has found a strong market, and that -- while other manufacturers don't yet have machines of similar types -- they likely soon will.

ATV manufacturers also know that Minnesota is recognized nationwide as a state that progressively manages its ATVs and ATV trails (insert skepticism here), and that if Minnesota -- home to two major ATV manufacturers -- were to keep RZRs and similar machines off Class I trails, other states might follow suit. So Dayton vetoed.

What now? Meeting by conference call Thursday, the DNR coalition agreed to start over, aiming not for legislation to pass in an expected legislative special section, but next year.

Hackbarth, meanwhile, said he won't reinitiate his legislation, knowing now Dayton would veto it. Still, count on Hackbarth and perhaps other legislators to be part of future DNR-led ATV discussions.

As Hackbarth says, he rides all the time.

Dennis Anderson •