Landscaper Dan Sullivan owns 90 wooded acres just outside Monticello. Friends and neighbor kids know they can walk his property on the trails he's built, but only if they follow his rules.
"No motors, no guns, no going off the trail," says Sullivan. "And you have to talk to me when you see me out there."
Sullivan's personal "no motors" rule doesn't apply to the new Badger State Trail, which bisects his land for a quarter mile. ATVs are allowed on about a third of the 33-mile crushed limestone trail, and for less than four months each year and only under certain conditions.
But well-organized ATV clubs are pressuring the state Department of Natural Resources for year-round access to the trail. If they get it, Sullivan says the ATV users will inevitably cause trail damage, trespass on his land and that of his neighbors, send hikers and bikers fleeing for their safety and make a noisy nuisance of themselves.
The Badger State Trail runs from just south of Paoli to the Illinois state line, where it connects to the Jane Addams Trail.
Sullivan would hate to see this "quiet and breathtaking" rail-trail - on pace to be visited by 50,000 bicyclists this year - taken over by ATVs. He bikes the trail frequently and calls authorities when he sees ATV riders using it out of season.
Last January, about 40 ATV users and other motorsports enthusiasts showed up at an organizing meeting of Friends of the Badger State Trail, paid $15 individual membership dues, and elected their own to a majority on the board.
Sullivan was replaced as interim president by Craig Schmidt, who heads the Monroe Stateline Trailblazers snowmobile club. Don Noble, owner of a small engine repair shop in Monroe and president of the Green County ATV Club, was also elected to the group's board.
"I wouldn't say we showed up in overwhelming numbers, but we showed more interest in the trail [than bicyclists]," says Noble.
Observers believe the ATV users took over the board to position themselves to obtain greater access to the trail.
But friends groups don't call the shots. They are advisory bodies that primarily do volunteer maintenance work. "We made it clear all along that the purpose of the friends group was to act as a DNR volunteer auxiliary," says DNR manager Steve Johnston, who oversees the Badger State Trail.
Still, Sharon Kaminecki notes with frustration that there are "no bicyclists on the board." Her Brodhead-based business, the Earth Rider Bicycling Boutique and Hotel, caters to cyclists on the Sugar River State Trail, which crosses the Badger State Trail south of Monticello.
Kaminecki has tried - so far unsuccessfully - to convince the friends group board to initiate programs that promote biking and hiking. "They ask me 'How would this or that apply to ATVs?'" she says. "They would be happier if no one biked on that trail."
Noble objects to promotional materials that talk up bicycling while failing to mention ATV-ing. He says Kaminecki submitted posters to the board that were "shot down because they were all leaning one way."
The Badger State Trail is expected to attract up to 175,000 bicyclists a year - once a seven-mile addition from Paoli to Madison/Fitchburg is completed and connected to the Capital City and ultimately Military Ridge trails. Paving that section likely won't happen for at least two years because the state Legislature opted not to commit millions of dollars in federal transportation grants to state bicycle projects in the 2005-07 budget.
Traffic on the Badger State Trail started well before its official opening in early July. ATVs were allowed to ride the 11-mile section between Monticello and Monroe on about 24 days between Dec. 1 and March 15 - when the ground was frozen and there wasn't adequate snow cover for snowmobiles.
ATVs will be permitted under these same restrictions for two more winters. Then the DNR will assess ATV-related environmental damage and law enforcement problems. Johnston says the DNR has already spent about $9,500 fixing trail rutting by ATVs south of Monroe and issued five citations to ATV riders on the trail in the last six months.
Political maneuvering by ATV interests started early. Rob McConnell, vice president of the Wisconsin ATV Association, called the ATV restrictions "woefully inadequate" in comments submitted to the DNR before the trail's master plan was finalized in February 2006. "This paltry 11 miles of winter-only trail will just not get the job done nor is it acceptable."
Though most public ATV trails are in the northern part of the state, the highest number of ATV owners live in southern Wisconsin.
There lies the 47-mile Cheese Country Trail, from Monroe to Mineral Point, to which ATV users have year-round access. That trail is ostensibly a multiuse trail, but local chamber offices discourage bicyclists from trying to ride the ATV-churned surface, and the trail is purposely left off maps of state bicycle trails.
In communities along the trail, tolerance for ATVs is wearing thin. In July, nearly 200 Gratiot residents (nearly 40% of the population) convinced their township board to reject a proposed 100-acre ATV park. Many ATV foes cited excessive ATV speed and noise on the Cheese Country Trail.
Noble says such concerns can be overcome even if ATVs are given full run of the Badger State Trail. ATV registration fees and gas taxes, he says, more than cover the cost of trail maintenance and law enforcement.
Bicyclists - who tread more lightly than ATVs - also contribute their share by buying $20 annual trail passes. But Noble doubts the trail will ever see the amount of bicycle traffic the DNR predicts. "If you can show me 200,000 bicyclists," he says, "we'll be happy with [just] winter use."
Meanwhile, Sullivan, who owns an ATV but uses it mainly to haul firewood, plans to remain a vigilant landowner and bike advocate.
"I'm 57, and I've already gone fast and made noise," he says. "I sympathize with those who want to ride the trail whenever they want. But when I was one of them, I became conscious of who I affected, so I curtailed that activity early in life. Like 45 years ago."
Studying the ATV users
State tourism officials say 20% of all Wisconsin residents over the age of 16 ride ATVs. That would mean more than 800,000 riders for the state's 300,000 total registered ATVs.
But a study by Bob Smail, a graduate student in the UW-Stevens Point College of Natural Resources, found that fewer than 175,000 ATV owners - less than 6% of the state's population - take their machines on public land. And, of those who do, most were satisfied with the quantity and quality of available trails.
Smail also questioned a 2004 study reporting that the average ATV user in Wisconsin spent $163.54 per day per trip, for a total of $295 million in 2003. This data was collected by the Wisconsin ATV Association, a group keenly interested in promoting ATV use, so "the economic impact and political representation of ATV riders may be overstated."
Michael Dombeck, a UW-Stevens Point professor who formerly headed the U.S. Forest Service, was instrumental in Smail's topic selection. Dombeck asked a number of folks in the field, including Ducks Unlimited, what state natural resources issue warranted greater study.
"Almost without fail," writes Smail, "they all said ATVs."