Northern Hills Rec. Assn. recommends dedicated personnel for ATV/UTV trail project

Pioneer photo by Paul Baker

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DEADWOOD — A trails group summit hosted by the Northern Hills Recreation Association and held at Deadwood City Hall Friday included heads of key local, state, and national stakeholder agencies, culminating with the association asking for a full-time manager to institute a formal ATV/UTV trail program and map development for the Northern Hills area.

With around 25 in attendance, Association Board Chairman Mike Stahl said the group has been working on this initiative for the past year.

“This is bigger than what our group is capable of doing,” Stahl said, explaining the meeting invitation and attendance of personnel from the Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks, South Dakota Department of Tourism, South Dakota Department of Transportation (DOT), cities, counties, business owners, and local citizens, all representing either entities involved in or affected by skyrocketing ATV/UTV use in the Northern Hills.

Stahl said the objective of the meeting was to inform as many agencies and managers as possible about the challenges and opportunities ahead regarding the use of the Black Hills by ATVs and UTVs.

“Today’s meeting progressed from our trails group committee as something we have been working on for several years,” Stahl said. “The communities of Lead and Deadwood began thinking about how to place, construct, and develop trailheads within the communities that would be a logical point for ATV and UTV users to connect to the Black Hills and return to the communities. It soon became clear that those do not readily exist. Flat ground within each community is a commodity not easily overlooked by developers; there just isn’t much. Other opportunities affect residential areas to their detriment. So, working with the USFS and BLM we began the task of a formal trail system. Both the USFS and the BLM have been tasked with that effort, but by involving them with our trails group, all agencies benefit.  Working together has made this group stronger.”

Stahl said the key to this program is economic development.

“ATV and UTV use is a potentially huge economic engine. Businesses and tax revenues will be directly benefit from a good managed trail system,” Stah said. “Funds could then be put back into trail improvements, expansions, mapping, publications, and safety.”

Deadwood Lead Economic Development Director Kevin Wagner addressed the group regarding ATV/UTV trail history and statistics.

Wagner said that from 1980-2010, the Northern Hills Ranger District was loosely restricted until a 2010 travel management plan was adopted allowing for motorized vehicles on certain trails in Forest Service lands with purchased permits.

“In 2018, the Forest Service announced the hiring of five trail rangers with two being stationed in the Northern Hills district,” Wagner said. “Due to increased travel, Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office also pays deputies overtime pay when they are off shift to patrol trails.”

Wagner said that along with increased awareness of Black Hills trails generated by social media, map apps, and allowances in the Northern Hills, comes increased traffic.

Increased ATV/UTV traffic has caused issues with trailheads, trail maintenance, highway presence, residential presence, and private property issues.

“The most detrimental would probably be the last three,” Wagner said. “The Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office wanted me to comment for them to say that they run however many officers they can during the summer months on overtime pay in and around the Galena and Nemo area to patrol them, since that area is being specifically overrun. They’ve seen a large increase in private property calls, highway accidents, speed enforcement because of that and general citations in the last three years, specifically.”

In 2020, the Forst Service sold just over 30,000 UTV and ATV trail permits.

“That’s 10,000 more than any year previous,” Wagner said, adding that the economic impact of this industry is undeniable in the area.

Forest Service Recreation Specialist Bonnie Jones addressed the group, discussing presenting a preliminary OHV planning map that is in development with the rec association and other agencies.

Jones also discussed the current OHV map the Forest Service hands out, adding that in 2020, 32,000 maps were printed and distributed in the Northern Hills.

Jones also presented an inter-agency map that is being developed that further highlights and identifies trails in the area.

“This is just a beginning point. Let’s look at this. That’s what’s out there,” she said.

Jones said that in 2019, there were 688 miles of Forest Service trails and 3,277 miles of roads available on the forest.

“That’s a little bit over 4,000 miles of stuff for people to use,” Jones said.

Ryan Larson said BLM is currently identifying and developing trails on its Northern Hills lands, as well.

“We get a lot of resource damage when people start making routes, straight up the hill,” Larson said. “There’s a ton of private land trespassers use, coming off not only BLM, but Forest Service. I know if I was one of those landowners, I wouldn’t necessarily want an ATV traipsing through my property. So this whole process will help alleviate some of that.”

Deadwood Historic Preservation Officer Kevin Kuchenbecker, who has worked with association from the beginning of the project, due to the historic nature of many of the trails, addressed the group regarding challenges, issues, and needs as the volunteer committee moves forward.

“Obviously, we have public interface, which we’re trying really hard to use, the trail user information – it appears limited – how do we get more of that out there?” Kuchenbecker said. “The coordination of needs, as you can see, even from the audience here today, there’s a lot of different entities, agencies, and organizations that are involved and staff that manage that. And, of course, trail development and management.”

Kuchenbecker said the Northern Hills is a wonderful back yard with recreation in and around its communities.

“But how do we connect our communities to the playground, so to speak?” Kuchenbecker said, later adding that association feels that there is a need for a centralized and coordinated management of the ATV trails.

“Our volunteer organization needs additional support and engagement from state agencies and our federal partners in this,” Kuchenbecker said. “Funding is needed to take it to the next step … We believe a full-time dedicated staffing is critical for us to take it to the next level. And when I say ‘us,’ I think we’re talking about the greater Black Hills area and South Dakota. Not just Lead and Deadwood and Northern Hills Rec Association.”

Kuchenbecker suggested that an existing conditions assessment needs to be completed and that a multi-modal trail system is the vision.

Stahl said what is needed now is a staff to carry the vision forward.

“We know that trail development for the ATV and UTV system would be a large economic engine. Huge,” Stahl said. “It’s really a need for us to come up with a plan, not unlike the snowmobile trail system is managed. There’s unique places you can go, user designated, and you get a map and they have to follow that. The ATV/UTV system is a lot more challenging because there’s a lot more snow on the ground. They can go anywhere they want. Some of those places they go are on private property … We need to formalize that.”

Representatives from Black Hills Trails, Deadwood BID 8, Black Hills Volksmarch, and Back Country Horsemen were also in attendance.

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