More than 75 people attended the Rusk County Board meeting, Tuesday, May 24, to discuss possible changes to the county vehicle registration ordinance involving ATV access to trails.

In October and November, Forestry Director Jeremy Kowslowski became aware ATVs were damaging the county forests. More damage has since been found.

According to Koslowski legitimate, legal water crossings for ATVs can cost between $10,000 and $100,000. The county has invested heavily into ATV trails, according to Koslowski. Approximately 359 illegitimate crossings have been found.

About 27 community members spoke during public comment. Several of the community members were concerned the ordinance changes would severely decrease the number or trails available to ATVs.

Rusk Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Andy Strom, said he believes making changes to ATV access to trails could negatively impact the local economy and small businesses. “Imposing additional restrictions could have disastrous consequences,” said Strom as he spoke about the economic stability of the county and how placing barriers to ATV travel could lower quality of life for many people who choose to live in Rusk County.

Rod Ellwanger believes ATV use should be better promoted in Rusk County for the economic development of the county.

Daniel Kline requested county supervisors to consider discussing the topic of ATV travel and trails further before making changes to ordinances. Kline requested a more detailed plan to close off sensitive areas and open other less sensitive areas.

Ladysmith resident Chrysa Ostenso requested the county supervisors to balance the economic and sociological needs of society as they make considerations. Ostenso believes the county needs to manage its resources while making provisions for recreational activities.

“The time has come when people can’t expect to run wherever they want,” said Ostenso.

Sam O’Keefe spoke about the concern for conservation. “The conservation is paid for by those using the trails and recreating,” said O’Keefe. He requested the money from trail stickers and passes to be used to restore conservation efforts along the trails.

Rusk County Conservationist Nick Stadnyk told county supervisors that he was in favor of the change in the ordinance to protect water quality and soil erosion on the trails.

Local hunter Brett Ewer cautioned that shutting down some of the ATV trails could negatively affect a hunter’s ability to retrieve a down deer in a timely manner.

Big Falls resident Carolyn Ford said she supported the ordinance because she believed it would help Rusk County remain in a pristine condition; she worries about the continued degradation if the ordinance is not approved. Of the few ATV users who are causing damage to the forest, Ford said, “wheelers are good people, there’s just a few who do these things.”

Wisconsin Representative Jim Edming said he was concerned about the possible drop in tourism closing ATVs could cause. Using ATVs are, according to Edming, part of the heritage of those living up here, he added “it’s how we live up here, please don’t end it.”

Mike Kopacz said he would like the county supervisors to strike a balance between conservation and recreation.

“Children need to be outside, somewhere to just get away,” said Hawkins resident Stephanie Galetka who emphasized the need that children have to be outside and that ATVs are a healthy way to do that. Children who are outside can be taught to respect nature and how to be responsible, said Galetka.

Kelly Young doesn’t believe more ordinances need to be put in place, but instead, the current ordinances need to be enforced. Doing this, Young believes, would reduce damage to the forests and trails.

The Wisconsin State statutes do not allow ATVs and UTV’s to cross streams or wetlands. The damage to Rusk County forests is considered a violation of the state’s statutes. Seditation, at one location, is entering streams due to ATVs crossing on non-authorized trails. The repair for the damage is estimated to be $20,000.

Eric Webster expressed concern for the county potentially losing $8-10 million in carbon credits or negatively impacting the county’s forestry industry. Webster requested county supervisors make the decision on what is best for the county as a whole, and not what their friends would prefer.

In September 2021, Rusk County contracted with BlueSource to sell the county’s carbon credits. The credits allow the county to receive a sustainable and tangible benefit. The sale of timber is independent of the carbon credits in the agreement and the county will continue to sell timber as it does.

According to the BlueSource website, the company has adopted the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The United Nations has 17 SDGs covering a variety of environmental issues. Several of these goals focus on the impact of climate change.

The United Nation’s mission statement for the Division for Sustainable Development Goals (DSDG) “provides substantive support and capacity-building for the goals and their related thematic issues, including water, energy, climate, oceans, urbanization, transport, science and technology, the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR), partnerships and Small Island Developing States.” DSDG plays a key role in the evaluation of UN system-wide implementation of the 2030 Agenda and on advocacy and outreach activities relating to the SDGs.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.

Buying carbon is not mandated locally or federally and the buyer does not receive anything physically by buying the carbon credits.

One tax payer requested the county to sell it’s county forests if the decision is to not use them.

Department of Natural Resources Land Specialist Doug Brown said last year the county supervisors approved a 15-year plan detailing the best land management practices on how Rusk County should manage the county forests. This plan was put together by Koslowski.

The 15-year plan lays out the policies of the forests and how to follow opportunities to preserve water qualities. The forests of Rusk County are third party certified by Sustainable Forests Initiatie (SFI) and because of the certification, the county, according to Brown, is held to the standard of protecting the resources.

The county is bound by state statutes (28.11) to have a 15-year management plan.

“You have to make a decision because you’ve already agreed,” said Brown.

Other counties have created access plans and then enforce the plan through policy, according to Brown. Those counties have created some form of access that is designated as to where ATV recreation can happen and where it cannot.

Those plans can include ATV as well as non-motorized trails.

Brown told attendees that the decision lies at the local level to determine what is best for the county. Some of the damage done to stream and wetland crossings is unique to Rusk County.

Chippewa County does have comprehensive access plans and according to the DNR does not experience damage that is being seen in Rusk County.

Not all logging trails are ATV trails because they are not maintained or groomed to be used in that manner.

County supervisors were asked if they were willing to spend large amounts of money to build up logging trails to make them suitable for ATVs. County supervisors were encouraged to work with area ATV groups to determined which ATV trail systems they want to recreate on and then create a plan for building up and maintaining those trails.

In some counties, a broad comprehensive ATV plan have taken two years to determined where ATVs and their trails should go. Establishing every logging trail as an ATV trail would not be feasible.

County supervisor Shane Sanderson calculated and weighed the cost of selling the county forest, as one community member suggested, and determined the county would greatly sacrifice needed revenue going that route.

“Freedom comes with a price,” said Sanderson. If the county forests are sold, $0 would return to the county for revenue, instead of the $8-10 million in carbon credits. Not considering both sides of the issue would be, according to Sanderson, a dereliction of duty.

County supervisor Philip Unterschuetz requested the motion to go back to the committee to allow the forestry committee to work with ATV clubs and the public to create a comprehensive access plan.

County supervisor Tom Cudo said, “for me to totally understand and make a decision, I need to see it…to make an educated decision on this.”

A unanimous motion was passed for this topic be returned to the committee.

The next forestry meeting will be held 3 p.m., Wednesday, June 15, at the Rusk County Government Center.