Published September 20, 2009, 12:00 AM

ATV closures in Cloquet Valley State Forest confuse, anger some users

Hunters who pursue grouse and deer in the Cloquet Valley State Forest already are noticing new signs in the woods this fall. Many are surprised to see them.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

Hunters who pursue grouse and deer in the Cloquet Valley State Forest already are noticing new signs in the woods this fall. Many are surprised to see them.

The signs — more than 500 in all — mark routes and areas that are closed to off-highway vehicle use in the forest.

“I know there are going to be a lot of people who drive up there right before deer season and say, ‘What the heck is this?’” said Phil Keppers of Duluth, who has hunted deer and grouse in the Cloquet Valley State Forest.

After years of planning and two series of public meetings, a well-publicized OHV plan for the forest was completed in December by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The forest was, in general, classified as “managed” under state guidelines, meaning it’s open to ATV use except where posted closed.

About 232 miles of the 1,017 miles of ATV trails (about 19 percent) in the forest are being posted as closed because they pass through wetlands, duplicate existing ATV trails or cannot sustain ATV use. Many hunters and ATV users are unhappy to see these routes closed. They’re taking their frustrations out on the new signs.

“They’re being spray-painted, being bent over or being picked up, removed — gone,” said Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Kipp Duncan. “There haven’t been a lot shot yet, but that’s because people aren’t carrying guns yet. That will happen.”

Although 80 percent of trails remain open to ATV use, the changes will affect some hunters, said Rich Staffon, DNR area wildlife manager at Cloquet.

“For those hunters who are directly impacted, it’s going to be a big deal for them,” he said. “It changes the way you can hunt.”

Popular destination

The Cloquet Valley State Forest, which lies north of Boulder Lake and south of Whiteface Reservoir, is popular with hunters. Many ride ATVs on the trails to hunt ruffed grouse. More than 400 private cabins, most of them deer shacks, lie on county leased land within the forest. Many hunters use ATVs to reach their deer shacks.

The reclassification of trails in Cloquet Valley State Forest, part of a statewide mandate to classify all state forests, was done by a committee that included DNR and St. Louis County representatives. They had to balance the needs of those who favored motorized and non-motorized use of the forest.

“The reason we did it [closing some areas to ATV use] was to try to provide some balance,” the DNR’s Staffon said. “We get a fair amount of people who call and are looking for a place to hunt where they don’t have to deal with crowds and ATVs. This is an effort to provide that option.”

“We felt like we had a fairly balanced plan,” said Dan Grindy, DNR area forestry supervisor at Cloquet.

The county, which controls about 85 percent of the land within the forest, was not obligated to participate in the planning process, and the County Board still could elect to manage its lands itself rather than abiding by the DNR’s reclassification.

“The county opted to cooperate,” said Jason Meyer, south area land manager for St. Louis County. “We thought it would be more advantageous than having two sets of rules. That would have been confusing.”

Dennis Fink, chairman of the St. Louis County Board, agreed.

“The Cloquet Valley forest is a checkerboard ownership. As a result, there are a great deal of miles in that forest that cross boundaries. … For us to manage it differently would not have been consistent with the law,” Fink said.

Deer shack access

The signs began going up this past spring and are still being put up, according to DNR and county officials. The signs prohibit ATV travel in six areas totaling about 19,000 acres as well as on other routes in the 300,000-acre forest. The closures also mean that hunters and trappers in those six “areas of limitation” will not be able to use ATVs to haul game out of the woods.

While the forest ATV plan allows ATV access to deer shacks in nearly all cases, some of the trails being closed are those hunters have used to get to their deer stands or to haul deer out of the woods.

“That’s probably where there will be a controversy,” said Tom Peterson, area supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources Trails and Waterways Division at Two Harbors.

Duluth’s Keppers was one of the hunters surprised to come upon the signs marking areas closed to ATV use.

“The thing that really gets me is that you can’t haul a deer out of there on an ATV,” he said. “For me, personally, they’ve made this large area I’ve been hunting for many years not huntable anymore.”

Although public hearings were held to explain the final plan, many hunters are just learning of the restrictions.

“It seems like a lot of people didn’t know what was going on,” said the county’s Meyer.

He and DNR officials say they have received many calls in the past couple of weeks from people confused about the signs or upset that they cannot ride ATVs where they once did.

Enforcement issues

Although the implementation for the Cloquet Valley State Forest plan will happen officially on Dec. 31, enforcement of the new regulations can begin as soon as closure signs are posted, said Brian McCann, a DNR planner in St. Paul.

Area conservation officers are aware of confusion over the closures and will take that into consideration, the DNR’s Duncan said.

“It’s going to be a case-by-case basis, and hopefully this will get worked out,” Duncan said. “People will have to get out there and figure out if the trails they use are off-limits.”

That process will prove trickier if some signs have been taken down, he said.

“Even if the signs are gone, they have been posted and it would still be an illegal operation [of an ATV],” Duncan said.