Ojibwe ATV trail system may set precedent

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LAC DU FLAMBEAU, Wis. - A system of All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) trails are being planned to snake through the pristine forest of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin, but controversy is already delaying any definite plans. If successful, the trail system on the reservation could be a model for other reservations to use.

The tribe devised an initial plan to develop a trail system and ATV Vehicle Regulation Ordinance in an effort to stop the use of tribal roads and highways by the ATV users because of the damage caused by their large tire treads. Until the ordinance went into effect on Aug. 15, ATV users had been allowed to use tribal roads and followed no particular speed limits or safety requirements. Random trails appeared near private homes and residential areas, and users were seen passing cars on roads and highways.

The ordinance specifies registration regulations, operation equipment guidelines, road rules and speed limits of 15 mph near residential areas, and 35 mph in outlying areas. It also stipulates that users between the age of 12 and 16 must complete a safety certificate program. Children under 12 are not allowed to use an ATV except for agricultural (or employment) purposes or unless accompanied by an adult.

The ordinance defined trails as a marked corridor on public property or on private lands subject to public easement or lease, and identified routes as highways or sidewalks designated for use by ATVs. Marking and defining the trails and routes would ultimately be the job of Eric Chapman, tribal conservation law enforcement official.

Representatives from the tribe's Natural Resource, Land Management, Historic Preservation, Tribal Roads, Water Resource, and Forestry departments were asked for their input on all aspects of devising the ATV map. "This is not an easy undertaking; the volume of allotted/fee/tribal land that checkerboards the reservation is making some of the proposed trails impossible to develop," Chapman explained.

An initial trail system was devised, which focused on the housing subdivisions where use is the heaviest and where most of the violation citations have been issued so far. Special attention was paid to keep the trail away from wetlands and culturally sensitive areas. The map was then shown at a public hearing on August 16.

Various ATV users were not quite satisfied with the plan. They offered ideas of their own, and devised their own trail system. The maps will be consolidated, reviewed by the Conservation Code Committee and then sent to the Tribal Council for approval. "This will be a trial year for the proposed trail system," Chapman said.

ATV use in Wisconsin is expanding. The number of licensed ATVs has grown to 182,000 up from 97,000 just four years ago. There are presently 15 registered tribal users, and that number is expected to grow exponentially. Non-tribal members also use the trails.

The reservation lies between the Northern Highland State forests, the Chequamegon National Forest, and is near the Nicolet National Forest in upstate Wisconsin. On any given day or night, the peace and quiet can be interrupted by the droning, deafening buzz of the four-wheelers as they cut through existing (and non-existing) trails.

The use of ATVs is forbidden in the nearby Nicolet National forest, but the U.S. Forest service may allow ATV use on 35 miles of new trails and 50 miles of connecting trails in the Chequamegon and Nicolet National forests.