When the people of Vilas County answered the question on the 2004 referendum asking if they wanted ATVs on their county land, 63 percent voted against an ATV presence.
When the Northern Highland-American Legion convened 16 stakeholders to discuss the placement of an ATV trail throughout the forest, Vilas County people actively opposed the trail and spread the alarm to other people in Wisconsin. Silent Sport Magazine, along with many environmental groups like Wisconsin Lakes, Wisconsin Wetlands, River Alliance, many county lake associations and scores of citizens, drowned the DNR in several thousands of letters asking them to prevent motorizing the state's largest, most wild and diverse resource.
Residents of Vilas County choose to live here because they want to be surrounded by rich forests and their enormous collection of clear freshwater lakes and rivers. The NHAL State Forest fills over one-third of Vilas County and spreads into Oneida and Iron counties. The forest protects over 226,000 acres from development and provides habitat for native plants as well as wildlife. Its 900 freshwater lakes, hundreds of miles of headwater streams, vast areas of wetlands and many state natural areas shelter diverse fisheries, loons, eagles, osprey, trumpeter swans and a variety of aquatic mammals. In letters objecting to ATV trails in the NHAL, people refer to peace and quiet as a rare and necessary escape from motor noise in cities.
ATV opponents are Wisconsin residents and tourists who revere the Northwoods culture of outdoor recreation. As the DNR's Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, a scientific survey, reveals, the two largest user groups are those who walk for pleasure (87 percent) and bicycle riders (49 percent). The five demands from Chicago tourists, in order, are more canoeing, biking, fishing, downhill skiing and camping. Whether relaxing to the sounds of nature in a secluded campsite or fishing on an uncrowded lake, the majority of users feel their woodland experience would be spoiled by the sound and sight of ATVs.
Vilas did not have to choose between a depressed economy or adding ATVs. Vilas has always been a popular destination for home buyers and tourists. Each year, 2 million visitors come to the NHAL. Vilas consistently ranks 13th in the state in tourist dollars while neighboring counties with ATV trails rank much lower: Iron County with over 300 miles ranks 63rd, Ashland 52nd and Price 65th, all with hundreds of miles of ATV trails. In fact every northern county except Vilas and Door offer extensive ATV trails creating over 5,000 miles of trails available that connect to thousands of miles in the Upper Peninsula. Door County, also closed to ATVs, ranks 8th in state tourist dollars. This proves it is not necessary to have ATV trails to attract tourists.
In fact a number of quiet users, like campers and bicycle riders, will avoid Vilas if ATVs are present.
SCORP found that ATV riding was incompatible with every land-based activity except snowmobiles.
If Boulder Junction, the current bicycle hub of Vilas, votes to allow ATVs on their roads, business owners may notice not any net gain in tourist dollars but a net loss. The bicycle trail in Boulder carries over 100 riders an hour during the summer. This is at least five times the traffic that ATVs can supply.
ATV riders like to compare their sport to snowmobile riders. In truth, there is no comparison. Snowmobiles come to Vilas in winter when human population is low, the ground is frozen, plants are dormant and animals less active. Snowmobile trails, not routes, blanket the NHAL and use private lands with the owner's permission. Living in Presque Isle year-round, we see large groups of snowmobiles parked outside restaurants. Their riders create significant income. On the other hand, my husband and I have walked many ATV trails in Mercer, Hurley and Harrison Hills in Lincoln County. We do not see ATVs lined up at restaurants, motels or any other business. Their presence during peak summer season is much lower than snowmobiles in winter. Although there are more ATVs registered (300,000) compared to snowmobiles (200,000), the DNR person who compiles these numbers said about half of ATVs are registered as strictly utility vehicles, not trail riding. This suggests that ATV riders provide a very small business boost compared to snowmobiles.
Perhaps the greatest difference between snowmobiles and ATVs is the damage these machines cause to the forest and lakes. In spring, snowmobile trails show little damage compared to ATV trails. ATVs roar through our forests in spring and summer when animals are giving birth and plants are returning to life. These trails show severe erosion, deep mud holes and damage to trees and lake shores. Since ATVs are designed and promoted to ride anywhere, many Northwoods riders feel free to carve their own trails off the designated path. Much of this damage is irreparable.
When Governor Walker's administration declared war on Wisconsin's natural resources, they eviscerated the DNR by removing most scientists and turning major environmental decisions over to the legislature. In 2015, state government directed the DNR to inventory roads on all public properties and prepare a plan for motorized trails. Polaris Industries spent thousands of dollars on lobbyists to push politicians to open the NHAL to ATVs. Polaris executives even made personal contributions to Walker's campaign.
After the roads were inventoried, the DNR held public listening sessions in 2017, and people statewide filled out a survey on the types of recreation they wanted in the NHAL. Two-thirds were opposed to ATVs in their state forest. Going against the majority's wishes, the DNR inserted 200-plus miles of ATV trails into their amended NHAL Forest Plan.
ATV proponents build on the myth that ATV riders will create a major economic boost in Vilas. Without ATVs, Vilas was never depressed. In fact Vilas led all northern counties in tourist dollars. The Vilas County Board in 2015 voted to kill the 2004 referendum where 63 percent of the people voted against ATVs.
The board chairman stunned most people present with this paraphrased message:
I firmly believe that a referendum in November will show the same results as the 2004 referendum, but I do not care about the wishes of the majority in this county. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we all pledge allegiance to our republic, not to a democracy. In a republic, the sovereignty is in each individual person. The wishes of the majority in a republic are advisory only, and each individual is free to go with the majority, or go his separate way, as he wishes.
According to the dictionary, there is no distinction between a democracy and a republic. They are one in the same. Vilas towns began to open ATV routes on county roads so they could access local business. There is no evidence that business has increased.
Do ATV riders have the right to use the NHAL State Forest because it is public land? Many people believe no one has the right to destroy this unique and essential piece of nature. People feel non-motorized use is healthier for the forest and the people. This forest with its lakes is our life support system. The majority of Wisconsinites acknowledge this. Over and over for the past 10 years, they have voted down motorized nature. Now the majority no longer counts. The largest and most wondrous wild habitat in our state is on the brink of irreparable damage.
ATV advocates will continue to push for more trails, as they always do. Their motors will soon echo throughout the forest at a cost to the people, far greater than any benefit.