Urgent: Vilas County Trail Threatened by ATVs

Bike Fed Executive Director Dave Cieslewicz reported in Monday’s blog post about an open pit mine that threatens the Elroy-Sparta Trail, the nation’s first rail trail. Today we share a guest post from Jeff Currie, President, Great Headwaters Trails, and he tells us ATV users threaten funding for a new bicycle trail in Vilas County. Wisconsin has thousands of miles of ATV trails. A few of those trails, like the Cheese Country Trail in the video below, are technically shared use, but anyone who has ridden a bicycle on them knows the ATVs rip up the gavel and create such a loose surface that the trail becomes almost unridable for bicycles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-ATV. The buddies I deer hunt with in Ashland County use ATV’s to get around on the logging roads and fire roads, and I have no problem with it. I think it is great that Wisconsin has so many places for ATV users to ride across the state, but they don’t mix well with family bicycle trails.

I have written blog posts in the past about the amazing, growing bicycle trail system in Vilas County. Riding those trails that parallel the rolling, winding roads around Manitowish Waters, Boulder Junction, and St. Germain has become a big part of most families’ vacation to the Musky Capital of the World. There are plenty of existing trails, fire roads and logging roads in the Northwoods for ATV’s already, adding them to the wonderful network of bicycle trails would be a huge mistake. Read Jeff’s thoughtful blog post below and please send your comments to the contacts he lists at the end of this post. Thanks again to Jeff Currie for this call to action. Let’s not lose a new Wisconsin cycling treasure.

Do you and your family want to ride your bicycle next to the guys in the video above? Would you want to ride on the loose gravel after heavy ATV use? Does heavy-handed introduction of ATV use on family bicycle trails upset you?

Vilas County has long been a top vacation destination in Wisconsin, and with over 1,300 Northwoods lakes, splendid wetlands, vast woodlands, it remains Musky Capital of the World. More recently though, Vilas County has become the recreational cycling capital of the north, thanks to an expanding network of trails.

The winding trails in Vilas County are incredibly popular and have become a huge draw for vacationing families in Northwoods. This is a very different experience than the one in the video above.

Towns from Boulder Junction, to Manitowish Waters to St. Germain on the west side of the county now draw visitors with bikes (and boats), to enjoy the 40+ miles of rolling asphalt trails connecting them that give riders of all ages a powerful invitation to come up and enjoy!


So much planning has gone into this trail, it is inappropriate and too late to add ATVs.

Based on the overwhelming success of those trails, it was a no brainer for the towns in eastern Vilas County try to connect to that popular family trail network. So in 2010, employees of the county’s Forestry Department and the residents started meeting to figure out how to get it done, and that’s how Great Headwaters Trails got its start. With help from the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles, GHT scored a $691,000 federal Bicycle-Pedestrian Facilities Program grant for a trail project on an abandoned railroad grade between the Town of Conover and Phelps, and everything seemed to be right on track.

After years of public meetings, phone calls and emails between GHT members, Town officials, Forestry Dept. staff and WisDOT, the Conover project is ready to be bid out and built by next spring! The 3.2 segment will be a major hub of the eastern Vilas County trail system. It will also provide a new route and new bridges for winter snowmobile use. And it will be the beginning of a trail connecting to Phelps, the town 11 miles to the east.

Everything was finally moving forward according to plan when County supervisors, newly elected earlier this year, voted in August to permit ATV use on county land, much of which surrounds eastern Vilas towns like Conover. Now supervisors on the county’s Forestry, Recreation and Land Committee are working eagerly and unilaterally to execute their plan for ATV trails, which includes putting four-wheelers on the first three-quarters of a mile of the Conover bike-ped trail.

The folly of mixing motorized and non-motorized use on family bicycle trails aside, the federal funding for the bike-ped project is strictly restricted to non-motorized trail development, except for snowmobile use in the winter.

We had countless planning meetings on site as well as in town, developed consensus on a plan and found the funding to implement it.

Facts don’t seem to deter the Forestry Committee or the county’s Recreation Administrator. Last week he asked for an informational meeting with DOT and DNR officials in Rhinelander. The DOT officials confirmed that changing the use of the trail would result in loss of funding and significant penalties for the sponsor who would not be likely to ever get another federal grant. The sponsor, of course, is the small town of Conover.

Even the loss of almost $700,000 hasn’t slowed down the county. Just a few days ago they wrote the DNR grant coordinator in Rhinelander to ask this: Could the county acquire money from the state ATV/snowmobile program to reimburse Conover for funds, over $80,000, it would have to pay back to the feds if it violated its commitment to use the federal grant for a bike-ped trail?

One of the new county supervisors explains the rush to ATV use this way: In previous years, Conover and other towns in the county only had a vegetarian diet to choose from, so they chose to develop bike trails. Now with the addition of ATV use, he says, they have meat!

What ATV trails will provide, of course, is the ability to market to some 300,000 ATV users in the state. Not quite as “meaty” a market as the 3 million Wisconsinites who ride bicycles for recreation. They and a good number of bike users from Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan are already tuning into Vilas County towns like Boulder Junction, St. Germain, Sayner and Manitowish Waters, that were far-sighted enough to develop bike trails. Those well-used trails bring their communities significant economic, health, recreation and transportation benefits, and provide reasons for people to want to invest in those communities in the future.

If you live in the area or will be around on Oct. 29th, climb down from your deer stand a little early and head over to this meeting to help us convince the County that ATVs and families on bicycles don’t mix well.

I encourage all Bike Fed members to educate Vilas County Forestry Committee members and the recreation administrator about their reprehensible behavior and narrow thinking, and to support the town boards of Conover and Phelps for having the wisdom to develop bike-ped infrastructure. We are not anti-ATV. There are many acceptable places for ATVs, and there is certainly room for more ATV trails, but the Great Headwaters Trail is not one of them.

Contact information for these folks is below. More information about Great Headwaters Trails is available at http://www.GHTrails.org.

Please check out plans for the whole GHT Trail System while you’re there, too – and consider a donation to help speed the system along.

Thank you,

Jeff Currie, President, Great Headwaters Trails



Steven Rhode, chairman of the Conover Town Board – rhodesa@nnex.net

Colin Snook, chairman of the Phelps Town Board – anewphelps@gmail.com

Ron De Bruyne, County Board chairman – rodebr@co.vilas.wi.us

Steve Doyen, chairman of the Vilas County Forestry, Recreation and Land Committee – stdoye@co.vilas.wi.us

Other committee members are –

Ken Anderson – glneagls@newnorth.net

Rocco Caffarella – rocaff@co.vilas.wi.us

Art Kunde – rodebr@co.vilas.wi.us

Willy Otterpohl – wiotte@co.vilas.wi.us



Join Today

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

3 thoughts on “Urgent: Vilas County Trail Threatened by ATVs

  1. Nine years ago I rode around the state, self-contained, pulling a trailer. There is a trail between Ashland and Superior, generally following US 2. I tried riding on the trail but deep sand made it impossible. I heard that ATV people were destroying the trail surface by gunning their motors to get a big rooster tail of flung gravel. Irresponsible people, in my opinion. I had to ride on US 2.


  2. This is un-believable, except that money is involved ! In my humble opinion, it is really stupid to mix a family recreation resource into something involving a-t-v-‘s. I would sincerely hope that this information finds its way to the good people involved with tourism in that area, to get on top of this & see what can be done. Headshaking stupidity at it’s finest. Again, look at the numbers affected- bicyclists & their respective families & the number of at-v r’s in the state makes this almost a joke, except people possibly dying because of it , isn’t very funny .Respectfully , submitted by: Kim Alexander-pres. Fox River Sports-Waukesha,WI

  3. Thank you, Jeff, for your essential advocacy. I hope you get a great turnout on October 29. Would you comment or post a follow-up to keep us informed?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *