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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.







April 18, 2003

Dear Minnesota Senator:

First, let me introduce myself. I'm Roger Lueth. I've been a Minnesota Conservation Officer since May 1975. I will retire shortly, this May 20th, with 28 years of DNR law enforcement service. I'm writing this letter as a citizen of Minnesota, not as a DNR employee although most of what I say does relate to experiences I've had while working for the state in that capacity These are MY opinions and personal observations and they may or may not agree with the DNR's position. There isn't a lot I haven't seen or done in these 28 years as an officer but I'm not here to discuss that. I've been in on the ground floor of the ATV movement. I'd hate to guess how many hours I've worked on ATV enforcement. I've begged, bitched, pleaded, charged and warned a bunch of them over the years. From what I see, for the most part, my efforts have fallen on deaf ears. In fact, we are losing ground, we are in no way keeping pace with the problems.

About 10 years ago, I pursued an ATV that ran thru a stop sign and then was operating on the shoulder of a county road, both distinct violations. The operator was wearing a helmet so I wasn't able to identify him. He eventually ran the ATV into a gravel pit and came out the backside through some trees where I couldn't follow him with my patrol vehicle. I pretended to leave the area but didn't. I came back with my lights out and listened. About a quarter mile away, I could hear the machine making it's way through the woods and was able to get a fairly close location on it. I drove to within several hundred yards of where I figured the ATV was at and listened again. I heard it for about a minute and then the engine shut down. I quietly exited my vehicle with a flashlight. Not wanting to spook the operator, I walked black (without any light) toward the area where I last heard the engine. I knew I was getting fairly close to it when I ran into an impenetrable "wall of trees". It was a very dark night and I had walked into a patch of second growth aspen. Every direction I turned, I bumped into a tree.

I turned on my flashlight to get thru this maze of trees. As soon as the light turned on, I heard the ATV start about 25 yards from me. He took off thru a jack pine area but then he ran into a thick patch of young aspen. I could now see well by using the illumination from the ATV's headlights. I watched as the windshield was torn off the ATV as he tried to go thru the young aspen. I started running toward him and was able to catch-up with him. He had no idea where I was as I grabbed both his shoulders with my hands. As soon as I touched him, he squeezed the throttle, accelerating the machine. I hung onto him and pulled his body horizontal but wasn't able to pull his hands from the handlebars. I lost my footing and grip on his shoulders but did catch the tubular rack on the ATV and hung on. The operator dragged me for about 50 yards before he got into some thicker tree cover again. He had to slow down some and I was able to regain my feet. I found that I could "steer him" by applying pressure one direction or the other on the rear rack of the machine. As soon as I realized this, and it didn't take long, we "skinned" one tree and the next one I "aimed" for we hit dead center. That was the end of the chase and my being dragged. Turned out the operator was a guy I knew well, in fact he had given me good information several times in the past. Because of that, I gave him a deal, charging him with the stop sign and operating on the roadway violations. I didn't charge him with the fleeing violation. Outside of tearing the knees out of my pants and losing my flashlight, I was none the worse for the wear. I did retrace our journey together and recovered my flashlight.

The overwhelming reason for writing you isn't to bore or entertain you my past experiences, it's that I am extremely concerned with the environmental degradation being caused by ATVs in this state. Minnesota is a very beautiful state. If something drastic isn't done in short order to control ATV damage, it's going to be "Minnesota Used to be a beautiful state".

I've been stationed at Lake George since Oct. 1980. It's a wide spot on highway 71, located between Park Rapids and Bemidji. Itasca State Park is 7 miles to the west of Lake George. Much of this area is covered with jack pine forest and the soils are sandy in much of northern Hubbard County. With the state park, the Mississippi river and our abundance of resorts on area lakes, tourism is a major source of income for area residents. Visitors come back year after year to enjoy the unspoiled forests, lands and water we treasure in this area.

Years ago I watched the snowmobile industry develop and expand. As an officer, we had substantial problems as this industry bloomed. Getting these folks to license their machines and then keep them from operating them on the roadways was a sizeable job. For the most part, snowmobilers now do a good job of licensing their machines but there still tends to be way too many of them operating on the highway road shoulders.

Many people tend or try to compare snowmobiles and ATVs. They are not comparable machines. It's like comparing apples and oranges. The only similarity is that they are both made of metal and plastic and have an engine, but the comparison stops there. Snowmobiles operate during frozen conditions and mostly on a base of ice and snow. For the most part, there is no machine contact with the ground. In good snow years we run several hundred snowmobiles over our groomed trail every weekend all winter long.

Come spring, when the snow and ice melt away, the trail surface is untouched. It looks just like it did when the first snow fell the previous November. The ice and snow totally absorbed the winter "beating" that the snowmobiles gave it.

ATVs, on the other hand, although capable of operating on frozen ground, for the most part operate during the warmer times of the year. My experience has shown that ATV engines are not good cold weather starters. The primary design of an ATV, where it has the "solid" rear axle, is one of the main reasons it causes so much damage everywhere it travels. With that unforgiving, solid rear axle, every time the ATV is turned, a tension or pressure is setup within the rear axle. If an operator turns his ATV to the left, the left or "inside" tire has less distance to travel than the right or the "outside" tire. The "outside" tire has more distance to cover to keep up thus has to turn faster than the inside tire. This sets up the tension in the axle. The only way this tension is relieved is when an axle breaks or one of the tires has to "skid or spin" to catch the other tire. This differential turning rate between the two tires causes tremendous damage to the surface the machine is being operated on. This same phenomena would happen to a car if it had a solid rear axle. Many years ago car manufacturers put a "differential" into the rear axle assembly. The differential now adjusts and absorbs this axle tension so the tires don't have to. I'm amazed that the ATV manufacturers haven't done this but it would add weight and considerable expense to a machine. They don't do it, I suspect, in order to stay cost competitive.

Although you may perceive that I'm totally anti ATVs, that's not the case. I am against the damage we are allowing them to do. Like a firearm, it's the irresponsible use of the item that creates the problem. I personally own a 2002 Honda Foreman 4 wheeled ATV. I'm not into hot-rodding, slinging mud or riding it hard. They are a very useful implement around a homestead for moving firewood, hay, or most any other not-too-heavy items. I have repeatedly noticed that even slow, deliberate operation around my yard causes significant surface damage, especially during any turning operations. It is just inherent in the machine for the reason I mentioned above. A single machine moving slowly causes damage. Now take that times 100 machines, times two thirds of them driving like there is no tomorrow and well, you get the picture. They are rapidly turning a fair amount of Minnesota into a landscape that looks like Hell.

Look at the horrendous damage that is occurring in our road ditches. Look at the erosion problems that have developed because an area is denuded of vegetative cover. Look at the gulleys that have formed wherever there are any slopes involved. When it gets intolerable and downright dangerous, highway departments are going to have to address this damage and it's not going to be cheap to rectify. I get numerous calls from irate landowners demanding who is going to repair the "trenches" cut across their driveways. They've repaired them numerous times already and are sick and tired of this damage occurring on a weekly basis. I don't know what to tell them except that we "require" ATVs to operate in the road ditches, they can't operate on the road surface. It absolutely makes sense to me that whichever group is causing the damage should also be held financially responsible for repairing it. I detest my general tax dollars being spent to repair the damage caused by a small segment of our society, especially when so many are opposed to many aspects of ATVing.

One of the statements often heard that bugs me to no end is "Well, it's only a small percentage of the machines causing the problem, 95% of the operators are well behaved and very conscientious". Even some uninformed people within the DNR make those statements. That just plain isn't true. I've never kept exact figures but a 75% irresponsible vs. a 25 % responsible ratio is much closer to what is actually happening out here. The "average" rider I check is 16 to 30 years old. He's driving a relatively new, high CC powered, 4 wheeler that he bought for little down and no payments for X months. Many of the operators wear raingear and their machines are covered with mud and aquatic vegetation.

I guess it's because I've had to work for everything I've owned that I take great care in keeping my property in good condition. I checked a group of six ATVers about three weeks ago. The group was typical, all young males, all mud covered and dragging aquatic vegetation. Several of the guys said "Hey, look at that machine, it's only two days old": It had one of the footrest platforms tore off. It had a board bolted to one of the front fenders to hold it on. He had been in two accidents already. It was a brand new high CC machine. I mentioned to him that people do get killed on these machines and that maybe he should keep that in mind. I seriously doubt my remarks sunk in. Those are the ones that make the short column on the interior of the paper usually with a nice picture on the top preceded by which high school they graduated from and who survives them. Try as I may, some people can't be stopped from destroying themselves.

I've made mention several times to mud and aquatic vegetation covering ATVs. This isn't an isolated or seldom seen phenomena, it's pretty much the norm especially when the group contains young males. I guess it must be the challenge to see if their machine "is up to it", that is go thru mud and wetland areas. I've seen numerous beautiful, cattail filled wetlands churned into a black bowl of mud soup by ATVs. After they get done, there isn't a piece of green vegetation visible, everything is mud and black. That wetland has just lost its ability to filter and purify the water that passes thru it. I wonder if this has anything to do with why Minnesota's water quality is declining? It's an environmental felony what these machines and ruthless operators are being allowed to do to this state.

Part of my patrol district is an extensive area of the Paul Bunyan State Forest which lies SE of Lake George. There are many sections of state owned land within this forest and much of it has seen extensive logging to harvest the over mature trees. Many miles of new roads were built into this area to remove the harvested timber. Lockable gates were installed on these new roads once the logging activity was finished. I swear we must have many blind or illiterate ATVers in this state because either they can't read or they can't comprehend signs that say "NO MOTORIZED VEHICLES ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT". You show me a locked gate up here and I'll show you an ATV trail that goes around the end of the gate. It is impossible to gate them out, berm them out or sign them out of an area. They go wherever they want to regardless of signs, locked gates or regulations. They are able to do this for the most part because their chance of getting caught is almost zero, and that brings me to my next point.

Did you know that Minnesota ranks about 45th out of 50 states in the ratio of the number of hunters and fishermen per Conservation Officer. Do you realize that Minn. had 141 game wardens way back in 1941? Today we have 135 officers working in the field. Right now, officers are stretched very, very thin over Minnesota's landscape. We are involved in regulating just about every aspect of outdoor activity in Minnesota running the gamut from feedlots to fish to fire and everything in between. There are just too many demands; I can't spend enough time on any one activity to do a quality job on it. There isn't a law on the books that's worth the paper it's written on if there isn't someone to put some teeth into it and enforce it. For my career, it's water over the dam at this point, but Minnesota desperately needs more Conservation Officers WORKING IN THE FIELD.

There is a mentality among a growing group of outdoor users these days that it's impossible to do this or that activity without using a motorized vehicle. I wonder how grandpa was able to do it? I wonder how your dad was able to do the activity without an ATV. Too many people think they have to have a motor strapped to their butt these days or they can't participate. If you don't believe me, set in Lake George on highway 71 starting two days before the state deer season opens. It's incredible the number of ATVs that are transported north to assist the deer hunters.

I could ramble on and on about this problem. I don't like any more laws and regulations any more than you do. I think we're being regulated to death. I sympathize with the responsible ATV operators in this state who are likely going to feel the screws being tightened further. Ultimately everything I am able to do and the impact I am able to make depends on the tools that you give me. I stand (and work) at the exact spot where the "rubber meets the road". Law enforcement has to untangle and understand the statutes you folks pass into law. For the most part, laws are needed and do make sense. In fact, I think you're getting better at turning out better thought out and researched laws. I tend to be more concerned about the laws that don't get passed for various sundry reasons.

Please, please, give us an ATV law with some strong provisions and penalties where we have some effective tools to deal with these problems. For the most part I strongly support the Marty/Ruud bill (SF 850), I hope you will too.

Thanks for listening.


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