For Al and Karen Morschauser, the recreational opportunity Juneau County provides is a major reason they moved to the area many years ago.

In the early 2000s, the Morschausers decided to make an investment which brought outdoor joy to them and their families, providing a fun way to navigate through the vastly rural county. The couple purchased an All-Terrain Vehicle and soon three more purchases followed, including a large Utility Terrain Vehicle. Morschauser said a new ATV can range in price from $5,000 to $7,000, while a large UTV can cost about $20,000 to $30,000 — if really decked out.

While the Morschausers probably didn’t realize it when they dived into the ATV world, their love affair with ATVs and UTVs would lead them to push for more opportunities for ATV users in Juneau County and surrounding areas.

The Morschausers are members of the Joint County ATV Council, which includes 10 clubs in Juneau, Jackson, Monroe, Sauk, Richland and Wood Counties. While ATV use has been popular across northern Wisconsin for years, its activity is growing in the southern half of the state. According to the Wisconsin ATV-UTV Association, based on registration numbers at the end of 2014, there are 93,000 registered ATV users in the association’s Southwest Region, which is composed of 26 counties. That number rose from 86,197 in a two-year span. The association also reported almost 9,000 (8,789) registered UTV users, an increase of more than 5,000 at the end of 2012.

“Originally when the Joint County ATV Council formed in 2010, there were three clubs,” Al Morschauser said. “Now there are 10. Five of the 10 clubs were actually in existence in 2010.”

Local municipalities have also embraced the ATV movement. Earlier this year, the city of New Lisbon opened most of its streets to ATV use, while Mauston followed suit a few months later. In Sauk County, Reedsburg and the La Valle area have also been very ATV friendly, opening up several routes through populated areas.

In late July, Mauston passed an ordinance allowing ATV use through the city, with the exception of state and federal highways. The city is in the process of posting green and white ATV signs at locations coming into Mauston and local ATV groups are chipping in to cover the cost. On Sept. 23, Juneau County ATV riders will host Quad Palooza, a fundraising event to help pay for Mauston’s ATV signs. The event begins at 1 p.m. at Shipwreck Bay restaurant along Castle Rock Lake.

“The signs will cost at least $1,900 so we’re hoping to raise enough money to cover the costs,” Al Morschauser said.

Once all the signs are posted, which should be by the end of September, ATV and UTV users will be able to ride through Mauston. City Administrator Nathan Thiel said the ordinance will run on a 1-year trial basis to determine if it works.

“I think there was a significant amount of interest from the public to see ATV access or open access on the roads, so the city council ultimately decided to open up the roads,” Thiel said. “It’s a trial period, so if there are concerns, it would be important to pass those along but I don’t foresee any real issues.”

Thiel said the only issue the council had was about time restrictions for operating through the city. The council decided to allow ATV use from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., noting daylight hours are longer in the summer months, a popular time for ATV riding.

“There are still some issues, like being able to cross from the north side of town to the south, along the bridge (over the Lemonweir River),” Thiel said. “Clearly, they won’t be able to access the bridge at this point. I think there is some discussion of contacting the Department of Transportation to get that allowed, but that’s on the ATV club to make that happen.”

Riders want more trails

Thiel said there has been a push in recent years to add more off-road trials to Juneau County. While the county may never approach the trail system of neighboring Jackson County, ATV users believe there’s room to grow, especially in Juneau and Sauk counties.

“They’ve opened up a lot of the town roads for people to go from one area to another, but the whole point of an ATV or UTV is to be off-road so it would be nice to have a trial system of some kind,” Thiel said.

Juneau County currently has one designated trail, a two-mile stretch through the woods in the town of Clearfield. The trail is located on county forest land and, similar to Mauston, will be used on a trial basis. According to Brian Loyd, the county’s parks and forestry director, the trail was originally a snowmobile path, but ATV advocates requested it to be open in non-winter months.

“It links to town roads that are open for ATV usage,” Loyd said.

Earlier this year, the Juneau County board opened up more paved roads for use. Loyd said most of the county is open, accept for areas with more traffic. There is a misconception the county is a bastion for ATV use.

“Even realtors will say, ‘Hey, we’ve got lots of trails to ride. Move to Juneau County to ride on the trails,’” Loyd said. “But we really only have two miles of forest land that has opened up for a trail. Just with the nature of our county with private land mixed in with forests and farm land, I don’t think we’ll ever get a lot of trails.”

Loyd said there could be room for trails in the Necedah Wildlife Refuge in the northern portion of the county, but they would have to be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The county’s land, forestry and parks department is working on plans to allow ATV use along the Hillsboro State Trail, which extends from Union Center to Hillsboro. The four-mile trail connects to the 400 State Trail in Union Center, which lines up with the Elroy-Sparta State Trail.

“I’ve been working with the city of Hillsboro and the DNR to see if that’s a possibility,” Loyd said. “We have an agreement with the city of Hillsboro to manage that trail for the state and they’re interested in seeing if ATV use can be linked to those two areas.”

Loyd said the plan will likely be approved if the DNR allows it and it’s backed by public support. According to Loyd, the proposal is still in the early stages.

Loyd said the rise in ATV popularity may be tied to the lack of snow the region has experienced in recent winters. The reduced snowfall has kept snowmobilers off trails for most of the cold months and some have turned to ATVs to get their recreational fix.

“You can’t really count on the snowmobile season and the chance to ride your sled,” Loyd said. “I could see people trading in their snowmobiles for ATVs because you can use it for most of the year.”

ATV growth in Sauk County

In Sauk County, two main groups spearhead ATV advocacy: the Sauk Ridge Runners and the Wisconsin River Runners. Dick Fish, a member of the Sauk Ridge Runners, has noticed ATV activity growing in his county, especially in the northern and central areas.

“Probably over the last half-dozen years we’ve had a lot of success in opening up more trails for ATV and UTV use in the county,” Fish said.

Since Sauk County has a unique blend of farm and woodland, Fish said it can be challenging to open new trials. He said hunting season can also pose challenges.

“That kind of drives you to public roads as an alternative,” Fish said. “Bottom line is all of us would prefer to ride off-road, but the public roads do offer a nice connection to towns and villages in this area.”

In recent years, both the town and city of Reedsburg have opened additional routes for ATVs. A rider has the opportunity to travel around the entire Reedsburg area, starting along Old La Valle Road in the north and winding up at Luedtke Road just east of the Baraboo River. Riders also have the opportunity to drive through the city of Reedsburg with Railroad Street being the longest stretch of roadway. Fish said the Sauk County municipalities of Rock Springs, North Freedom, village of Loganville, town of Delton, town of La Valle, town of Woodland and town of Westfield have opened public roads for ATV riders.

“It’s expanding,” Fish said. “It started in the northern part of the county and kept gradually moving south.”

The town of La Valle offers many ATV routes, especially along Lake Redstone. Riders can navigate around the entire lake if they wish. There are also plenty of paths along the central border where La Valle meets the town of Woodland.

“A lot of those homes along Lake Redstone are vacation homes,” Fish said. “When you drive around up there you see a lot of ATVs and UTVs sitting in their yards and many are used for recreation.”

Fish said the Sauk Ridge Runners have about 15 miles of trails; some are relegated for club use, while others are public paths. Fish said two ideal spots for riding are along White Mound County Park and Lake Redstone County Park.

Fish said increased demand for more trails may push county legislators to set aside additional land for ATV use. Many communities chose to test the waters first by opening up urban roadways on a trial basis.

“Once that gets going we’re hearing people say, ‘Well how about me?’” Fish said. “It starts with a few and then some towns open them all up.”

No routes in Columbia County

Columbia County has yet to embrace the ATV phenomenon.

According to Maria Taylor of the DNR, the county doesn’t have public trails and municipalities have yet to allow ATV use on city roadways.

“Some counties have towns that have opened up some of their town roads for access, but apparently Columbia County does not have that right now, either,” Taylor said.

Kurt Calkins, director of the county’s Land and Water Conservation Department, said Columbia County doesn’t have a really developed parks system that would allow it to work with ATV groups, like in northern Wisconsin. He said many of the parks are “low impact” and aren’t suited for ATV use.

“The big challenge is so much of the land is privately-owned and that makes it hard to establish trails,” Calkins said.

Calkins said there are no immediate plans to develop ATV trails in the county.

“It’s not like up north,” Calkins said. “In the Mercer area, they’re all about ATVs.”

The northern portion of Wisconsin features many ATV trails where riders can travel not just through different towns, but also multiple counties.

Council promotes safety

On a recent sunny September day, Al and Karen Morschauser spent the afternoon on trail patrol, monitoring the town of Clearfield path to make sure users are abiding by the rules.

While most riders obey laws on public trails and routes, there are always a few who try to push the limits. The county trail has a posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour, which is fair considering the path is somewhat windy with trees and brush hugging its edges.

“Most people obey the laws and are fine, but sometimes you’ll see people do burnouts and create donuts,” Morschauser said. “You can’t catch everybody.”

Besides advocating for more ATV routes, the Joint County ATV Council also strives to promote safety. According to the DNR, fines for violating ATV/UTV laws range from $150-$2,000 and violators could spend a year in jail.

The DNR has outlined the following safety tips: Always conduct a pre-ride inspection on the machine to make sure it’s operating safely and legally; notify someone where you’re traveling; familiarize yourself with the area before you ride with a map, smart phone or GPS system; all children age 12-15 must be accompanied by an adult when operating on a designated route; all operators and passengers younger than 18 are required to wear a minimum DOT standard ATV or motorcycle helmet; do not operate your machine without valid registration; do not operate without headlight illumination on a roadway; do not operate on routes not-designated for ATV use; ATV safety certification is required if you were born after Jan. 1, 1988 and no person may operate with a blood alcohol concentration of .08 percent or more, or with any detectable amount of a restricted controlled substance in their blood.

“A lot of people don’t know the rules and we want to help people understand them better so they can have fun but also stay safe,” Morschauser said.

Contact Kevin Damask at 608-963-7323 or on Twitter @kdamask