Splitt, Frank G.
A Sustainable ATV Trail Is a Real Canard
Vilas County News-Review On-Line Letters to the Editor, July 17, 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

A Sustainable ATV Trail Is a Real Canard

By Frank G. Splitt, Posted July 17, 2007

By way of background, the Northern Highland-American Legion (NHAL) State Forest Master Plan, approved by Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board (NRB) in October 2005, contained an all- terrain vehicle (ATV) directive stating that its objective is to: “Provide sustainable ATV riding opportunities and a quality riding experience with an emphasis on trails that link or are connected to a regional network of ATV trails.”

The directive went on to make noteworthy statements such as:

● The use of ATVs is authorized on trails designated for ATV use on the NHAL State Forest, but suitable route or routes for ATV trails have yet to be identified.

● The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) may designate ATV trails in the future when suitable trail routes are found.

● Trails would be sited and developed according to the DNR’s established ATV trail policies and standards.

● Additional analysis of potential trail routes, to evaluate and consider potential environmental, social, economic and safety issues, will be conducted within 18 months of the approval of the plan (by the end of April 2007).

In effect, the ATV directive served to institutionalize the idea that the DNR not only will allow ATVs to be used in the NHAL, but is actively promoting such usage as well. As difficult as it is for environmentally concerned citizens to believe, the ATV camel’s nose is now in the NHAL State Forest tent.


The DNR’s initial effort to jump-start ATV use in the NHAL State Forest involved an attempt to establish an experimental ATV loop trail in the vicinity of the forest’s Little Rock Lake in the early fall of 2005. This effort was aborted after vehement opposition by local citizens.

This action precipitated a pivotal moment in what has become an ongoing saga pitting citizens against the ATV marketing forces driving the commercialization of Wisconsin’s natural resources - even the most sensitive.

Rather than examining the wisdom and efficacy of its ATV directive, the NRB elected to continue to press on - commissioning the ATV Stakeholder Group in January 2006. The group was activated in April 2006 with a mission to lay out a sustainable ATV trail on the NHAL State Forest. This was truly a daunting assignment given that a sustainable ATV trail on the NHAL is an oxymoron if there ever was one. Why so?

Simply put, a sustainable trail would be one that could be indefinitely maintained and used in such a way that it does not harm the ecosystem in which it is embedded. In the words of the Brundtland Commission, a sustainable ATV trail would meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Here sustainability relates to the continuity of an ecosystem - its economic, social, institutional and environmental aspects of the related human society, as well as the nonhuman-related environment. ATVs are not environmentally friendly and by no means ecosystem neutral. ATVs can and will degrade an ecosystem no matter how careful drivers are to stay on designated trails.

ATVs have the inherent capacity to disrupt an ecosystem since they serve as efficient vectors for both aquatic and terrestrial invasive species, not to mention as a source of noise pollution and the extensive damage that can be done by rogue drivers.

Based on the above, one is left to wonder why the ATV Stakeholder Group recommended ATV trail sites as they did. Their proposal for a sustainable ATV trail is a real canard.

The proposed trail traverses what is likely one of the most sensitive areas of the NHAL State Forest - the E.M. Griffith Forest Restoration and Recreation Area proposed by the Northwoods Conservation Association and the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of the Lakeland Area back in 1996. The proposal called for the establishment of a Northern Lake and Forest Ecosystem Management and Demonstration Area. Details on this proposal can be found at

Perhaps the DNR’s apparent choice to provide strong support for the development and maintenance of ATV riding opportunities, particularly trails that contribute to regional trail networks, is the answer - notwithstanding the strong opposition of area residents and no matter what the financial and environmental costs.

Only time will tell if logic, reason and common sense will be able to stem the tide of uncontrolled ATV commercial interests that seek to exploit the NHAL State Forest and put at risk the life of the proverbial goose that is laying golden eggs.