A staff editorial in late September heralded the county board’s passage of a master plan for bicycle trails that would link the picturesque communities of Eagle River, Land O’Lakes, Conover, Phelps and St. Germain. The eventual “Great Wisconsin Headwaters Trail System,” as envisioned by the Vilas Area Silent Sports Association (which is unaffiliated with this magazine), would further capitalize on the largely unspoiled natural beauty up there.
“We believe it is great news for the future of northern Wisconsin’s tourism industry that farsighted individuals are working to establish interconnected trails between communities,” the editorial stated.
Now the bad news. From the same communities that bike trails may one day connect, Vilas County officials have solicited interest in ATV “routes” – paved rural roads that might be opened to ATV riders – indicating the county may be willing to connect town roads by opening county roads to quads, too.
Long hampered by a majority of Vilas County residents’ strong opposition to ATV trails on their pristine public lands, the Landover ATV Club is now seeking access to rural roads throughout the county. And they’re one step closer to that goal now that Phelps Township in eastern Vilas County, on October 10, unanimously approved a map of ATV routes there.
“The feeling of the board was that silent sports in this area are obviously an important resource for us. But as a small, economically depressed community, ATVs could be good for business too,” Phelps Town Board Chairman Colin Snook told me in a telephone interview. “Are ATVs the savior? No. But putting the pieces together, it certainly can’t hurt.”
Many disagree with this statement. In fact, in a recent letter to the newspaper, titled “ATVs will chase away silent sport enthusiasts,” Pete Moline, the owner of Afterglow Lake Resort in Phelps, argued that his business would only suffer.
He wrote that some snowshoers and cross-country skiers, to whom his 240-acre resort surrounded by the Nicolet National Forest is especially attractive, already complain about the noise from snowmobiles, which Moline allows to cross his property. If ATVs were allowed on a road near a couple of his cabins rentals, Moline wrote, “I will likely lose business to ATV noise in the spring, summer and fall.“
“To offset this loss,” Moline then boldly declared, “I will be closing the snowmobile trail to gain business in the winter.”
Moline later rescinded his threat to close the snowmobile trail segment on his property – but remained outspoken against the ATV routes – after southern Sugar Maple Road, on which his resort is located, was removed from the ATV route map. ATVs would instead be sent onto County Trunk E, one of two county roads included on the map that will require its approval by the county board.
In a letter published last August, long-time anti-ATV activist Sue Drum of Presque Isle argued, “Promoting silent recreation like camping, swimming, canoeing and kayaking, walking and biking has made Vilas rich. Instead of adding income, ATV riders will simply displace quiet visitors, and Vilas could lose more dollars than they gain.”
“That’s a possibility,” Phelps chairman Snook admitted to me. “We can make assumptions like that without the test data. But we’re going to do a real test over a two-year trial period and see what the outcome is. … If it doesn’t work, we won’t have hurt the community.”
Another possibility is that the ATV routes on roads with 13 dead ends won’t attract ATV’ers from outside the area. These short stretches of pavement do not connect to eachother, let alone to legal ATV trails in neighboring Forest County to the east or Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the north. So it’s more likely local ATV owners will be the ones to use the routes, trespass on and damage adjacent private property, cause traffic accidents and generally create an ongoing nuisance for law enforcement. That would hurt the community.
As it is, Vilas County is one of only two northern counties to not allow ATV riding on public land or roads (the other is Door County), and that fact has solidified its reputation as a refuge from engine noise and forest trail damage.
But before the Phelps Town Board vote, no market research was done to determine if the area could expect a net loss in tourism if ATVs were allowed on local roads. Instead the board based its decision largely on the results of a survey of residents, in which 309 said they favored opening roads to ATVs and 219 opposed it.
Compare those survey results to the countywide defeat at the ballot box in 2004, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, of a measure that would have allowed ATVs on county land. Then in 2008, thousands of calls, letters and emails convinced the Natural Resources Board to keep the rut digging wheels of ATVs out of the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, much of which lies in Vilas County.
These two anti-ATV victories explain as well as anything why ATV riders are now seeking access to the county’s roads.
Nevermind that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, ATV owner manuals and manufacturers’ stickers on the machines themselves all warn against operating ATVs on paved roads. The low pressure tires and solid rear axles make “turning an ATV on paved surfaces unpredictable and unstable,” according to ATVSafety.gov.
There are already many safe and popular hiking, biking and ski trails in Vilas County snaking around many of its 1,300 lakes and scores more streams. And there are even places where neither motor vehicles nor bicycles are allowed. Five miles southeast of Phelps is the 5,800-acre Blackjack Springs Wildlife Area in which you can travel by foot only.
To his credit, Snook said he’s looking forward to construction of the Conover-Phelps segment of the Great Wisconsin Headwaters Trail for hiking and biking. But he is also seeking access for ATV’ers to a road on national forest land leading to Conover.
“We have the potential for the best of both worlds,” he said.
Hopefully that’s true. After all, Vilas County seems destined to remain in ATV’ers cross hairs. Still I fear that by eliminating Vilas County as one of the last remaining holdouts from these machines, the place will become a little less, unique, precious and welcoming.