Do Minnesotans have a right to quietude?
It’s a question that is at the heart of the current conflict between residents of Eagles Nest Township and the Prospector’s Trail ATV Club, which wants to construct a designated ATV corridor somewhere through this lake community, located between Tower and Ely.
It’s all part of a region-wide effort to create a sprawling network of ATV trails and associated amenities, like campgrounds, designed to make the North Country a national destination for ATV riders. It has the potential to be an economic windfall for those businesses that cater to visitors, since it creates an entirely new potential clientele.
At the same time, residents in places like Eagles Nest Township, worry they’re going to be forced to live with the noise, dust, and other impacts from that steady stream of riders that will be passing through their normally quiet community. Folks in Eagles Nest aren’t the only ones to complain— they’re just the most organized in our region. Residents in the tip of the Arrowhead have already effectively kept new trails out of Cook County.
Those opposed to these new trails are usually quick to point out they fully support the use of ATVs by their neighbors, which typically involves occasional use at most. They’re opposed, however, to the prospect of large numbers of outside visitors, who may not have the same appreciation for the land or the rights of those living near the trails to the quiet enjoyment of their property.
It’s a quandary for the politicians, who don’t want to rock the boat with the well-connected and organized ATV clubs, nor with the increasingly organized opponents of the plans to ramp up ATV tourism. While the economic impacts of increased ridership to businesses in Tower and Ely are real, there is the risk of killing the economic Golden Goose in the neighboring townships, residents of which fuel much of the economy in Tower and Ely. As dozens and dozens of Eagles Nest residents told the town board recently, they moved to the area on the assumption of peace and quiet. One resident recounted that she and her husband had moved to the township from the Brainerd lakes area to escape the increasing noise and other activity there. If the qualities that brought people to the area are diminished, undoubtedly some of our residents will pick up and leave. Others won’t come in the first place. That will have its own economic impacts.
Some argue that the battle is hopeless, and that the political forces backing the ATV clubs are so powerful in St. Paul and in St. Louis County that resistance is futile. Yet, at least in Eagles Nest, residents aren’t willing to throw in the towel without a fight. They argue that peace and quiet is an important part of their way of life in Eagles Nest, and they believe they have a right to it.
In Minnesota, that could actually be true. Back in the 1970s, when concern for the environment was more popular than it is today, the Legislature enacted a law, Minn. Stat. 116B, which is still on the books, that states that “each person is entitled by right to the protection, preservation, and enhancement of air, water, land, and other natural resources located within the state…” That law subsequently defines “natural resources” as “all mineral, animal, botanical, air, water, land, timber, soil, quietude, recreational and historical resources.”
In other words, Minnesotans do have a statutory right to quietude, defined by Oxford as “a state of stillness, calmness, and quiet in a person or place.” It’s a right we suspect is not granted in most other states.
It’s a right that public land managers should consider as they move forward with their plans to facilitate increased ATV riding in the state. Much of the early decision-making that cleared the way for a major expansion in the state’s ATV trail network occurred with little public notice or involvement, driven by public agencies and ATV clubs. That’s starting to change, as Minnesotans are beginning to recognize the trade-offs this latest form of motorized recreation can create, and are increasingly speaking up about it.
That’s not to suggest that new ATV trails aren’t worthwhile. If trails can help concentrate use and provide the kind of hardening that’s necessary to mitigate the damage that unregulated ATV use can cause to wetlands, forests, and sensitive soils, they can be part of the solution.
But land managers have to recognize that high traffic trails are an imposition for many landowners and that they are likely to face increasing pushback around the state. At a minimum, the broader public needs to have a stronger voice moving forward. They have a right to it.
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