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Trouble in the Big Woods

Sun, Oct 15th, 2000
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Residents and officials look for solutionsBy Nancy OvercottMonday, October 16, 2000

"It's a fright. Just look at the ruts they've made here by going through when it's too muddy. I like to bring my horse and buggy down this trail and with these ruts it makes for a pretty rough ride."

These are the words of Walter Norby as quoted in Al Mathison's "After Chores" (Journal, September 18, 2000). Norby, who has lived in or near the Big Woods in eastern Fillmore County almost eighty years, is complaining about ATV's (four-wheel-drive trucks, four-wheelers and dirt bikes) and the ruts they make on Big Woods trails, especially the trail leading down to Wisel Creek.

In a letter to the editor (Journal, September 25, 2000), Deb and Larry Topness write about "the disgraceful things that have been happening these past few years to our dear old Big Woods." They are complaining about ATV damage to the old Shattuck Creek/Cabbage Rocks minimum maintenance road and trails.

This area is dear to me also. I first visited it to look for birds with Dr. Alden Risser of Stewartville on May 14,1988. Risser, who has since passed away, was a highly acclaimed Minnesota bird enthusiast and mentor to many young birdwatchers. The Cabbage Rocks area was his favorite wild place. We saw seventy-four species of birds that day.

The Topness letter also complains about over-hunting, over-fishing and people driving on neighbors' fields while shining deer: "I walked in the woods just last weekend and heard nary a sound of a bird, a squirrel or a deer . . .let alone seeing a fish in the stream!"

Not long after Topness spoke with some of the recreationists and hunters, someone shot a window out of his pickup. Fear of reprisal and an age-old mistrust of government makes Big Woods people reluctant to complain, Topness says. He believes people who live outside of Fillmore County are doing most of the damage. He has talked with ATV people from Waukon, Decorah, Minneapolis, Albert Lea and Austin.

He believes the excessive taking of wildlife and fish is being done mostly by people who have recently immigrated to this country and may not fully understand our hunting, fishing and trespassing laws. Unfortunately, a few of these people are deliberately breaking the laws, thus giving a bad name to all the recent immigrants.

Much of the land in the Big Woods is in small parcels, so there are many landowners. Some of the land belongs to the state. Because of this mixture, management is difficult. In search of solutions, Topness arranged for a public meeting at his home on Monday, October 9.

Attendees were Larry Nelson, Regional Director of DNR Region 5 Operations; John Kelly, DNR Area Forester; Dan Book, Conservation Officer; Craig Blommer, DNR Area Supervisor of Trails and Waterways; Kenric Scheevel, State Senator; Greg Davids, State Representative; two Preble Township supervisors; and ten local landowners. Although invited, no county commissioners attended.

The Saturday before the meeting I accompanied Topness to some of the most damaged places in the area, where the holes and ruts are deep enough to contain a pickup truck. I saw the degradation of the stream bank and the places where new paths and ruts were created when old paths became impassable, even for ATV's. In three hours, I saw only five species of songbirds. I tried with little success to recall the beauty of the area and the seventy-four species of birds I saw in one day with Dr. Risser.

This area contains a confusing array of no trespassing and state land signs and a place where there was once a bar across the minimum maintenance road with a sign saying, "No Motorized Vehicles beyond this Point." All that remains is an iron post. At this spot, we saw five pickups and three four-wheelers belonging to a group of hunters camping there. One of the hunters came up the no longer posted road on his ATV with a deer that he shot with a bow and arrow. Bow-hunting season for deer is open now, as is the season for small game. We talked with the campers who were amicable and assured us they were trying to stay on state land, although the confusing mixture of state land and small private parcels makes this almost impossible to do.

As people gathered for the Monday meeting, Topness passed around photos we had taken of the ATV damage, which raised a general sense of alarm. Several people mentioned that they thought the trail leading to and along Shattuck Creek was an old cartway, thus a township responsibility. The Preble Township supervisors searched their maps and could find no record of the cartway. Senator Scheevel said the township needs to identify it as an abandoned cartway and formally notify the DNR. Forester Kelly said as soon as he receives such notification he will install gates closing the area to motorized vehicles. Regional DNR Director Nelson said he would find funding for the gates.

Landowner Jack Bratrud began a discussion of ATV use on township roads. He said a state law enacted around three to five years ago made ATV use on gravel roads legal. Since then, the problem has dramatically worsened. Topness agreed saying he has seen the most damage in approximately the last five years. Bratrud said he recently witnessed fifteen four-wheelers riding double past his house in the Big Woods area of Amherst Township. He said this legal activity gave rise to illegal activity when someone cut his fences.

Senator Scheevel said we have to make a distinction between lawful use that may require new legislation and illegal use that requires enforcement. The law on shining animals at night is one that requires enforcement, but may also require new legislation. Shining is only legal for observing animals, not for shooting them. Representative Davids said he would consider introducing a bill to ban shining altogether.

No one knew any specifics about the law allowing ATV's on gravel roads. Representative Davids promised to research it. He said, "I take private property very seriously," and he offered to introduce a bill closing all cartways and township roads statewide to ATV recreationists. Township roads are farm to market roads and were never intended for this dangerous kind of play. Officer Book said that part of the problem is there aren't many places for this kind of play anymore and groups of people have discovered that the Big Woods is one place they can still go.

Senator Scheevel said because townships have the right to ban ATV use on their roads, except for agricultural exemptions, the best course of action might be through townships instead of the state. Officer Book said ATV's, except for designated trails, are already banned on county and state highways. Following this clarification, Representative Davids agreed that township action might be the best course. County level action is also a possibility. A countywide resolution might be more enforceable and less confusing than each township having its own unique laws.

Although more work is necessary, this meeting was useful in clarifying the issues surrounding ATV use and hunting. We made definite progress on the Shattuck Creek cartway problem. It was good for individual landowners to learn they are not alone in their concerns and that our politicians and state officials are taking this matter seriously.

Deb and Larry Topness deserve credit for bringing these issues to public attention. Without their efforts, this discussion might never have occurred.

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