A potential compromise has been reached in a bitter land-use dispute that pitted all-terrain vehicle riders and Crow Wing County officials against the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

Lessard-Sams Chairman Bob Anderson said last week in an interview that he is hopeful a majority of council members will approve a tentative deal over abbreviated trails in the 2,000-acre Mississippi River Northwoods Habitat Complex at their next meeting, in April.

Moving the needle will require the Outdoor Heritage Council to abandon its strong opposition of motorized traills on the property. The council funded the county’s purchase of the land from Potlach Corp. for $11 million in a deal approved by the 2012 Legislature.

Later, when the county embraced an ATV trail plan for the woods, council members objected forcefully and threatened to sue.

“Hopefully we can have this one packed down,” Anderson said. “It continued to fester and not get resolved.”

“This whole issue has gone on way too long as far as I’m concerned,” Crow Wing County Board Chairman Doug Houge said. “There’s been a lot of finger-pointing back and forth.”

ATV statesmanship

Anderson and Houge credited sudden diplomacy by an unlikely source — ATV riders — for helping to build compromise. They were led by Ray Bohn, a former aide on many levels to the late Gov. Rudy Perpich. Another key player was Sarah Strommen, the DNR’s assistant commissioner of Parks & Trails and Fish & Wildlife.

The land in question isn’t massive, but it unites other preserved lands that together protect 9 miles of untouched Mississippi River shoreline from commercial development. The northwoods complex is in the Brainerd area.

Hard feelings took root on both sides over allegations that the county tricked the council by not divulging ATV riding as a potential recreation on the property. Under Minnesota’s constitutional Legacy Amendment passed by voters in 2008, the Lessard-Sams council awards more than $100 million a year to restore, enhance and protect natural habitat. Recreation isn’t a central mission of the council.

At the height of the dispute, some council members wanted the state to sue Crow Wing County, saying any ATV trails would damage the habitat the council was trying to preserve with its funding. At the same time, the county wasn’t backing down from its advancement of a plan by the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders ATV Club to designate 11.5 miles of existing trails in the forest for off-highway vehicles.

On Nov. 1, 2016, Anderson wrote to DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr notifying him of the council’s request that the DNR “initiate appropriate legal action relative to Crow Wing County and the Mississippi Northwoods project.” But DNR lawyers told Landwehr the agency lacked the authority. Alternatively, Strommen opened talks with Crow Wing County, Bohn (on behalf of the All-Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota) and local ATV clubs.

Room to negotiate

The ATV riders had applied to the DNR for Grant-In-Aid money for trail maintenance on the Northwoods complex. Additionally, the county wanted cooperation from the Lessard-Sams Council on an uncompleted land swap that was originally part of the county’s reasoning for taking ownership of the property. Under the swap, certain parcels of Northwoods property near Hwy. 210 would be taken for commercial development. In exchange, the county would add much more undeveloped land to the complex away from the highway.

Bohn said he recognized room for compromise.

“I just thought that this wouldn’t be that hard to figure out,” Bohn said. “I made some suggestions to both parties how they could settle this thing.”

What followed was a meeting of all the parties convened by Bohn Dec. 15. They adopted a compromise resolution including the following elements:

• The complex will include 11.5 miles of designated and posted off-highway vehicle trails.

• Some 25 miles of other trails on the landscape (from the days when Potlatch owned it) will be off limits to motorized travel. Previously, there was some ambivalence on this point. Those same trails will remain open for big-game hunting, per state law.

• The limitations don’t preclude ATVs from using a possible future, multiuse trail.

• A picnic area proposed for the ATV trail will be eliminated.

• ATV club riders and the county will revise their Grant-in-Aid application to reflect the changes.

• DNR will facilitate the scheduling of meetings involving the Lessard-Sams Council to expedite the land swap desired by the county.

Strommen said the deal nails down the extent of the trails — a point of uncertainty for council members. In the big picture, she said, it also helps with the collaboration needed between counties and the state to preserve natural lands.

“I certainly hope it will be accepted by the [Lessard-Sams] council,” Strommen said.