Splitt, Frank G.
ATV Trails in the State Forest Are Tragedy in the Making
Vilas County News-Review On-Line Letters to the Editor, June 5, 2007
Vilas County News-Review
Eagle River
Original Date

Dr. Frank G. Splitt is the VP Emeritus of Educational and Environmental Initiatives at Nortel Networks, a former McCormick Faculty Fellow at Northwestern University, Co-chair of the Plum Lake Township Lakes Committee and current president of the Ballard-Irving-White Birch Lakes Association. He is a property owner and seasonal resident of Star Lake, Wisconsin. This document is part of "Selected Documents Reflecting Opposition to Proposed ATV Trails in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest," 2007, collected and distributed electronically by Northwoods Citizens for Responsible Stewardship.].

  • Bookwood Historical Collection, Star Lake

ATV Trails in the State Forest Are Tragedy in the Making

By Frank Splitt, Posted June 5, 2007

Kudos to Will Maines for his most informative May 16, 2007, column, “Knowles and Nelson would, too.” Maines provided valuable insights that helped prompt this amplification of my previously expressed concern about locating ATV trails in the Northern Highlands-American Legion State Forest (NHAL) - see “State forest ATV trails need rerouting” (same issue).

Although it can certainly be argued that the forest is there to be used by all citizens, a much more powerful argument can be made that the forest must be protected from uses that destroy the forest’s natural habitat, peace and quiet, and mitigate against its sustainability. The continuing debate on the contentious proposal to route an ATV trail through the NHAL has illuminated a sharp contrast in ecological consciousness, values and sensibilities between the supporters of the proposed ATV trail and those who oppose the trail.

Supporters want to be able to operate their ATVs through the forest for the recreational pleasure they derive from riding remote, wilderness-like trails with their family and friends. They are, in turn, supported by financially powerful commercial interests - ATV manufacturers, outfitters and organizations such as the Blue Ribbon Coalition and Tread Lightly - that would benefit from an expanded market. There is also potential support from local businesses that see the promise of additional revenues associated with an influx of new tourists.

On the other hand, those citizens who oppose the ATV trails believe they are serving a noble cause - defending the NHAL against motorized recreational aggression. They want to protect the forest along with its waterbodies and its wetlands from a source of continuous degradation. They seek to prevent the spread of terrestrial and aquatic invasive species, erosion, habitat damage and adverse effects on forest aesthetics. They also want to minimize noise, safety problems, damage to recreational facilities, impact on federally listed Threatened and Endangered species, as well as liabilities.

No doubt, the powerful lobbying influence of the commercial interests was sufficient to open the door for ATV trails in the NHAL Master Plan and then to have the ATV Stakeholders Committee appointed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The proposed trail through the Sayner-Star Lake area is likely based on the stern resistance put up by other communities and the gas and food serving potentially available in Sayner and Star Lake.

Relative to the ATV backers, ATV trail critics lack economic power; however, as volunteers in the fight against the spread of invasive species, many have been voicing their concerns rather vocally at the series of meetings held under the auspices of the ATV Stakeholders Committee. These already weary volunteers and other Vilas County taxpayers do not need to be burdened by the additional work and expenses occasioned by an influx of ATV-transported invasive species. According to Maines and others, the committee gives the impression of operating with a mandate to plan and build an ATV trail no matter what.

It is of interest to note that the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) review partners have been unanimous in their view that ATVs should be excluded from the recreation mix in river corridors covered by a FERC license. There are good reasons for this position which is based on actual experience in many river corridors. According to Dr. William Sloey, retired UW-Oshkosh professor and Star Lake’s resident ecologist, the Vilas County portion of the NHAL proposed for an ATV trail is just as ecologically sensitive as many river corridors, e.g., see his May 29 letter, “Proposed state forest ATV trail threatens rare old-growth forest.”

This collective experience and that in other ATV-trailed forests in Wisconsin and elsewhere should have been front and center when pressure was exerted to consider ATV trails in the NHAL Master Plan - certainly before appointing the ATV Stakeholders Committee. But that was yesterday. Today there is

11 concern that along with spreading spotted knapweed, wild parsnip and Canada thistle that have been documented on trail systems and roadways, ATVs will accelerate their spread as well as that of garlic mustard, purple loosestrife, buckthorn, Asian honeysuckles and Japanese barberry - all of which pose a serious threat to forest ecology.

In his now classic essay, “A Land Ethic,” Aldo Leopold provided a key insight concerning human-environmental connections that is apropos in this situation: “An act is right as it tends to preserve the integrity, diversity, and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong as it tends otherwise.” In the light of this insight, the well-known devastating impact of ATVs on the environment makes clear that consideration of ATV trails in the NHAL was a bad idea from the get-go, especially so in ecologically and socially sensitive areas as currently proposed. Today, it’s a tragedy in the making.

Know that the members of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board (NRB) are under very strong pressure to allow ATV trail development in the NHAL. We need fear that if there is not a continuous stream of letters to these members, they may come to believe this is not a huge issue and cave in to the special interests supporting ATV trail development.

The best way to avoid this tragedy in the making is a sustained letter campaign from Vilas County residents, the people who will be affected the most, to NRB members. I strongly urge concerned citizens to help mount an increased letter campaign to these members to give the NRB plenty of reasons to know we are very serious about this issue. By doing so, you can help put an end to this motorized assault on the NHAL.

Write to NRB members in care of Laurie Ross, P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707-7921, or e-mail to