No ATVs in State Parks

Off-highway vehicles do not belong in Minnesota State Parks

Why the need to state the obvious?

Some lawmakers are considering whether or not we should open up Minnesota State Parks to off-highway motor vehicles (OHVs). This is not a minor change, but a redefinition of Minnesota State Parks. Our legislators have always interpreted the law defining our state parks, which states only uses “without impairment for the enjoyment and recreation of future generations” are allowed.

We are vigilantly watching the legislature to ensure any bills or other actions to open State Parks will be opposed.

What are OHVs?

OHV stands for Off-Highway Vehicle and is the umbrella term for a variety of vehicles designed for driving off road. OHVs come in all shapes and sizes with anywhere from 2 to 8 wheels, or even tracks. It includes vehicles known as ATVs (all-terrain vehicles), dirt bikes (also known as off-highway motorcycles), trucks such as Jeeps.

Take Action

Gov. Mark Dayton

Gov. Dayton has expressed his opposition to any bill that would open state parks to off-highway vehicles such as ATVs. Please thank him for this and urge him to continue his opposition.

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  • Telephone: 651-201-3400 or 800-657-3717


Your Legislators

As this issue moves through the legislative process, your legislators may be voting on bills this session that could open the door to off-highway vehicles, such as ATVs in state parks. Let them know you oppose this and why.

Key Legislative Leadership

House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka have a major say in what ultimately becomes law. They have not indicated where they stand on this issue, and they need to hear where you stand.

Rep. Kurt Daudt (House Speaker)

Sen. Paul Gazelka (Senate Majority Leader)


Your message:

1) Please DO NOT allow all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) into state parks under any circumstances.

2) Please oppose provisions in HF3142/HF4211/SF3063 that subvert the Minnesota Outdoor Recreation Act by allowing all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) into state parks for the first time in MN history while suspending public comment and DNR rulemaking authority that are so vital to ensuring public safety.

Here are a few ways to stay connected and help protect state parks:

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Key Issues

Which parks are being threatened?

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All of them, starting with our crown jewel: Lake Vermilion

In February 2018, a bill (HF 3142 / SF3063) was drafted by Rep. Fabian and Rep. Heintzeman to allow visitors to operate all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) in campgrounds and access routes at Lake Vermilion-Soudan Mine and Hayes Lake State Parks. If this bill passes it would be the very first time that the legislature has indicated that the law defining state parks could be interpreted to allow for all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). As such, it dismantles the very definition that has kept state parks as places of conservation. There would be little grounds to stop ATVs from being allowed in all the other state parks.

Past efforts

This latest bill is part of a persistent effort by a small group of ATV users to open state parks for their use. Starting in 2010, some ATV users successfully influenced the master planning process for Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground State Park to include a recommendation for ATV trail connections and allowance of ATVs in a campground, even though such use went against the state park rules.

Similarly, in 2017 a draft of the Taconite State Trail Master Plan hinted at the possibility of allowing ATVs and other off-highway vehicles on the trail as it went through Bear Head Lake and McCarthy Beach State Parks. We responded with strong opposition to this suggestion and the final plan was much clearer about the prohibition of ATVs in state parks.

Last year the legislature passed a $1 million appropriation for a new OHV trail “linking… Bear Head Lake and Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Parks.”

In 2014 the DNR began the process of revising state park rules, with interest in responding to changing visitor needs such as OHVs. Rule changes often take years, however, and as yet no proposed changes have been made.

The Minnesota Outdoor Recreation Act

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The Minnesota Outdoor Recreation Act of 1975 (M.S. 86A Subd. 2.c) is the defining document upon which our state park system is grounded. It defines the purpose of state parks as being the protection of Minnesota’s natural phenomena for people to enjoy without impairment. It is clear that state parks are not meant to accommodate every kind of recreational use and in fact the only permissible uses are those that do not cause material disturbance to the natural features of parks.

This law is only as good as the lawmakers who interpret it. Fortunately, the legislature has always interpreted this law to mean that off-highway vehicles, such as ATVs are not compatible with the definition of a state park.

This may be upended during the 2018 legislative session however, as a few legislators have authored a bill that runs counter to this accepted interpretation. It erodes the law by introducing a “pilot” program allowing for ATVs. But once such a bill passes, it implies that the legislature has decided on a new interpretation for the definition of state parks, which makes any effort to stop future expansions of this program to be legislatively challenging to say the least.

Disproportionate Access

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Off-highway vehicles (OHVs) are popular in Minnesota, but remain a niche activity. While there are about 300,000 OHVs registered in Minnesota, only about 5% of Minnesotans own one.

In contrast, state parks are widely used. The DNR estimates about 30% of Minnesotans visit a state park every year, and state parks host over 10 million annual visitors, including 1 million overnight guests.

And yet, OHV opportunities vastly outweigh state park opportunities. There are over 4 million acres of state forests in Minnesota, of which about 3,966,000 acres are open to OHVs in some capacity. The state of Minnesota directly supports about 2,500 miles of OHV trail. Conversely, there are only 214,000 acres of state park land in Minnesota, on which the DNR maintains about 1,000 miles of hiking trails.

Environmental Impacts

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Study after study has demonstrated the many dangers off-highway vehicles (OHVs) pose to the natural environment, ranging from soil erosion, soil compaction, spreading weeds, trampling vegetation, disrupting watersheds, fragmenting habitat, displacing wildlife, and creating noise pollution.

A review by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded “the effects of OHV activities are diverse and potentially profound… studies have revealed a variety of effects on soil properties, watersheds, and vegetation resulting from one to multiple passes by OHV vehicles.”

A study by the U.S. Forest Service reached similar conclusions, saying all-terrain vehicle (ATV) “traffic can adversely affect natural resources and the way the vehicle is equipped does not make a statistically significant difference… all ATVs contribute to the effects regardless of type and equipment.”

The harmful environmental effects of OHVs are directly opposed to the purposes of Minnesota State Parks. The law is clear: the purposes of state parks are to “preserve, perpetuate, and interpret the natural features that existed in the area of the park prior to settlement.”

Safety Issues

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Off-highway vehicles such as ATVs pose unique safety challenges. They are deceptively dangerous in part because they are unstable on paved roads, causing them to roll unexpectedly. When they do roll the crash results in death more often than motorcycles, according to Reuters. According to a report by, in 2016, there were an estimated 101,200 ATV-related, emergency department-treated injuries in the United States. An estimated 26 percent of these involved children younger than 16 years of age.

Now imagine these motorized vehicles being ridden around within a busy campground with children learning to ride their bicycles and running around enjoying the freedom of the outdoors. This is a recipe for disaster.

Visitor Opposition

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State park visitors have consistently said they don’t want off-highway vehicles (OHVs) in their state parks (MnDNR surveys in 2007, 2012, and 2017 all asked a variant of the question). Rather than motorized opportunities, state park visitors want quiet, natural experiences; 72% of visitors say the smells and sounds of nature are a very important reason why they visit parks, and 57% say experiencing quiet is a very important reason for their visit.

Additionally, the public has voiced opposition to OHVs in state parks in DNR master plans. For example, the Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Master Plan states “several consistent themes carried through responses about what would make people less likely to visit Lake Vermilion State Park: Motorized use – especially ATVs, was the most identified detractor” (p. 87). And similarly, the Taconite State Trail Master Planstates “a majority of comments expressed concern and opposition to allowing OHVs on the state trail, specifically within state parks” (Appendix, p. 5).

Frequently Asked Questions

What about snowmobiles?

Snowmobiles are allowed in some state parks on designated trails. There are certainly noise impacts caused by snowmobiles but their use has been allowed since legislation was passed decades ago, making it hard to reverse. However, there are a number of ways that snowmobiles have less impact than off-highway vehicles such as ATVs.

Most state park campgrounds are closed in the winter, and visitation is much lower, so concerns over sound and displacement are minimized.

In addition, the snowpack serves as a protective blanket for the land, so snowmobiles don’t have the same negative environmental impacts that ATVs do. The law gives park managers broad leeway to close snowmobile trails whenever they worry the snow conditions are such that the natural resources within the park could be damaged.

How are OHVs/ATVs any different than Harley motorcycles?

Yes, it’s true that some motorcycles can be loud and disruptive. We certainly do not encourage people to come to state parks to rev their motorcycles.Similarly, we do not want to encourage people to come to state parks if their primary objective is motorized recreation.

Additionally, off-highway vehicles such as ATVs, present a whole other level of concerns. They are a separate class of vehicle designed less for transportation and more for thrills. This is an important distinction. According to ATV Safety Institute, ATVs are designed to be operated only on trails and Kids Health says you should never ride on paved surfaces or public roads (except to cross them). Reuters further explains that ATVs are different from motorcycles in that they are more deadly.

See our section above about the environmental impacts of OHVs such as ATVs that go beyond the noise impacts.

Couldn't we require mufflers?

Noise is certainly a major impact that causes conflicts with other users. However, even if off-highway vehicles made no noise at all they would continue to pose a safety threat for visitors. They also would continue to have disastrous impacts on erosion, water quality and wildlife habitat.

All these reasons combined is why state parks have always been defined to be places where off-highway vehicles are not compatible.

Who is pushing for this?

There are a number of local and national off-highway vehicle groups that are pushing to create more trails and open up places that have previously been considered incompatible. Even as off-highway vehicle use is relatively stagnate, these local groups have been influential in expanding state resources toward this niche activity.

Groups from the local area surrounding the targeted parks seem to be pushing for this use. While we appreciate local involvement with state parks, as demonstrated by our support for Friends Groups, it is important to remember that state parks are different from local or even regional parks in that they are state-wide assets, funded by the state, to preserve our state’s natural heritage. Therefore, any changes to state park definitions should not be done to cater to a small, local contingency.

What about State Recreation Areas?

The Minnesota Outdoor Recreation Act makes a clear distinction between state parks and state recreation areas (SRAs), with stricter protections for state parks’ conservation. While Minnesota state parks are defined as places where recreation is limited to activities which do not cause material disturbance (M.S. 86A Subd. 2), state recreation areas allow for much broader use and are intended “to provide a broad selection of outdoor recreation opportunities in a natural setting which may be used by large numbers of people,” (M.S. 86A Subd. 3).

There is a one SRA that was established and designed specifically for off-highway vehicle use, called the Iron Range OHV SRA. None of the other seven SRAs (listed below) currently allow off-highway vehicles.

List of all eight state recreation areas (SRAs)

  • Big Bog
  • Cuyuna Country
  • Garden Island
  • Greenleaf Lake
  • Iron Range OHV
  • La Salle Lake
  • Minnesota Valley
  • Red River

Additionally a section of Tettegouche State Park was added and given the technical designation of SRA, allowing for an ATV trail to continue to be used on the land. In practice, visitors would not realize this part of the park has a different designation, which causes some confusion.

Summary of Key Points

The Law

The Minnesota Outdoor Recreation Act of 1975 is clear that state parks are not meant to accommodate every kind of recreational use and in fact the only permissible uses are those that do not cause material disturbance to the natural features of parks.
(M.S. 86A Subd. 2.c)

The State Park Users

Most State Park visitors (72%) say that enjoying the smells and sounds of nature is very important to their visit and most (60%) oppose OHVs in state parks. Meanwhile only 12 percent of visitors support the idea of allowing OHVs in state parks.

Disproportionate Use of Land

There is currently 1,800% more state-owned land available for OHV users (in the form of 4,000,000 acres of State Forests) than for state park visitors (214,252 acres). That statistic alone is staggering, but paired with the fact that only five percent of Minnesotans even own an OHV, while 30 percent of Minnesotans visit state parks, it’s undeniable that there is a disproportionate use of land.