A conservation controversy: Multi-use trail proposal on Legacy land raises concerns

Do motorized vehicles and land conservation mix? A multi-use trails proposal for a parcel preserved with Legacy Amendment funds has people on all sides of the issue pondering the question.

Adapted Graphic by Jan Finger/Brainerd Dispatch

Do motorized vehicles and land conservation mix? A multi-use trails proposal for a parcel preserved with Legacy Amendment funds has people on all sides of the issue pondering the question.

The proposal at the center of controversy would designate trails within a nearly 2,000-acre piece of land, nestled between the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport and the Crow Wing County Landfill, known as the Mississippi River Northwoods. Using existing forest roads and motorized trails carved through the property over its years in private ownership, the proposal seeks funding from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Off-Highway Vehicle Trails Assistance Program, also known as grants-in-aid, for the trail system.

Now part of the more than 105,000 acres of land owned and managed by Crow Wing County, the Mississippi River Northwoods area-and its 2.7 miles of river shoreline-was selected for habitat protection through the Outdoor Heritage Fund, a stash of state sales tax dollars constitutionally dedicated for land preservation. More than $11 million from the fund was used to purchase the parcel from the Potlatch Corporation. Combined with adjacent properties, the land acquisition shielded more than 9 miles of contiguous Mississippi River shoreline from development.

County officials and representatives from area all-terrain vehicle clubs say the 11.5-mile trail proposal is like any other in Crow Wing County-owned forests, following a prescribed series of steps to obtain county and state approval for the designation and maintenance of trails long enjoyed by users of all kinds.

"I think this would be a different situation if we had a virgin piece of land-2,000 acres and not an inch of trail out there," said Chris Pence, Crow Wing County land services supervisor. "We're not creating new trails. This is all there. ... They're not going away."


Others-including conservationists and members of the state council charged with apportioning Outdoor Heritage funds-believe the trail system violates the spirit of what Minnesota voters intended their tax dollars be used to preserve when they approved the Clean Water, Land & Legacy Amendment in 2008.

"The (Outdoor Heritage) Fund is not to make it a playground for ATVs," said Roger Landers, a former chair of the county parks and trails committee who cross-country skis and mountain bikes in and around the Northwoods property. "That's exactly what we're doing here."

Two days remain for members of the public to submit their own opinions on the trail proposal to Crow Wing County Land Services before those comments and the trail project brief go before the county's Natural Resources Advisory Committee for further consideration.


Protect and preserve

In September 2013, an array of people including those from private, nonprofit and government groups piled into voyageur canoes to celebrate the preservation of the Mississippi River Northwoods Habitat Complex, as it was known in the funding proposal. Considered precious by conservationists for many reasons-including as the home of countless plant and animal species, a native trout stream and untouched shoreline within the headwaters region of one of the world's major river systems-the property was particularly prized because of its proximity to a growing Brainerd lakes area.

The funding approval by the Minnesota Legislature in 2012 to acquire the property was the culmination of years of preservation efforts by numerous parties.

Todd Holman, Mississippi headwaters program director at the nonprofit conservation organization The Nature Conservancy, was one of the early partners in drives to purchase the property for the purpose of conserving its habitat. Holman said the property was on the radar of several groups, including those in state government, for its high ratings in natural resources and biological diversity.


"There were all kinds of natural components that had our attention for why we should help with, or be a party to, or even lead, if the opportunity were available, in the protection of that site," Holman said.

The Nature Conservancy developed one preservation proposal that ultimately failed, seeking funding from transportation dollars through the lens of a buffer around the airport. An earlier failed effort was led by a different nonprofit conservation group, The Trust for Public Land, to utilize the DNR's Minnesota Forest Legacy Program with a conservation easement.

It was a funding proposal from The Trust for Public Land, along with several supporting partners, including The Nature Conservancy, that ultimately found success in the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. The council is legislatively established, tasked with recommending projects for funding approval from the Outdoor Heritage Fund.

The Outdoor Heritage Fund is one of four funds of public money established through the Legacy Amendment, receiving one-third of all the dedicated sales tax dollars. The state constitution prescribes those funds "may be spent only to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife."

From Holman's perspective, those involved in the Legacy Amendment proposal were interested primarily in the goal of preserving the diverse natural resources on the Mississippi River Northwoods site.

"At the time, we all kind of knew what a wildlife management area was," Holman said. "We know what the rules are. We know what you do there. There was a presumption that this was heading toward a wildlife management area."

After the project was recommended for funding by the council-but before it received legislative approval-Holman said it changed directions, shifting toward Crow Wing County assuming ownership instead of the DNR. The county ownership conversation was engaged by those at the top of both governmental bodies, including DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr.

"If the county already owned and managed the (nearby) French Rapids and the forestry area south or west of this, and they already owned and managed the landfill and all of that forested corridor to the east of this, I think almost anybody would look at that and think, well gee, wouldn't it be the most efficient?" Holman said.


The appropriation from the Outdoor Heritage Fund was approved by the Minnesota Legislature in October 2012 and the Mississippi River Northwoods property was officially transferred to Crow Wing County ownership the next month.


County, Lessard-Sams at odds

Crow Wing County was not the first or the last local government the Lessard-Sams council worked with on land acquisition. For several council members, however, the deal serves as an example of a communication breakdown-a deal in which expectations of the property's future use were not clearly defined. County officials, meanwhile, maintain the county's intentions of managing the property as it does all other county property-including management of recreational motorized trails-were part of the discussion from the beginning.

Seven of the 12 Lessard-Sams council members spoke with the Brainerd Dispatch about the project, some of whom were part of the proposal and acquisition process from the beginning. These included public members Elizabeth Wilkens, Susan Olson, Jane Kingston, David Hartwell and Barry Tilley, along with state legislators Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, and Sen. Bill Ingebritsen, R-Alexandria. All agreed concerns raised by this particular project have led to more intense scrutiny of future uses of parcels acquired through the Outdoor Heritage Fund.

Kingston was appointed to the council in 2011 as a public member. Kingston toured Mississippi River Northwoods when the property was under council consideration, and said she recognized why trail riding enthusiasts would be attracted to it.

"It is full of terrain and vistas and something gorgeous around every corner," Kingston said.

But Kingston said a trail system for motorized use on the property was never mentioned, despite extensive discussion of the potential for a paved bicycle trail through the parcel in the future. A corridor for connecting the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail and the Paul Bunyan State Trail was previously identified on the property by the DNR. So central to council discussions was the potential bike trail that it was included in the final legislation, with a provision requiring buyback of the affected property and repayment to the Outdoor Heritage Fund upon installation.


"If the project had been presented as it is being presented now, with this elaborate trail system, it would never have gotten a hearing," Kingston said. "I'm not against ATVs and trails. I'm just against ATV parks on projects funded with Outdoor Heritage dollars. ... If this plan proceeds, the money should be refunded."

Hartwell, a public member of the council since its inception, said his understanding of county land management involved the harvesting of timber, not recreational trails. He also pointed to the in-depth council discussions on the bike trail as an indication of trail-related concerns.

"We even talked about not just the trail, but the area that the trail would affect," Hartwell said. "If they want to put trails all over there, somebody needs to pay for the area that will disturb wildlife in, and that that would be consistent with our discussions on the bike trail, which is a lot less intrusive to wildlife than ATVs."

Hartwell said he would not have voted to approve the project if he'd known about the potential for motorized trails.

"Hell no. Absolutely not," Hartwell said. "I don't think it meets the constitutional definition of protect habitat for wildlife."

McNamara said although he was aware of trails on the property, he was operating under the assumption the county's location south of Highway 2 meant it would follow the same rules as state forestland-where trails are closed to motorized use unless posted otherwise. He was unaware, he said, that counties could choose to follow different designations. In Crow Wing County, all trails on county property are open to motorized use unless marked closed.

"That meant that all these trails, even though we bought this land as habitat, we actually bought it with a whole bunch of open ATV trails," McNamara said. "I think it raises the bigger question, are we asking enough questions when we are going to have somebody own this land other than the state?"

An April 8 letter from Lessard-Sams Chair Bob Anderson to Crow Wing County asks for clarification on numerous points within the trail proposal, including how the county intends to measure habitat impact from the recreational trails.


"What steps might be taken to 'protect, restore and enhance' and to deter any detrimental impacts?" the letter stated. "Such could put the county in a position of having to reimburse the OHF (Outdoor Heritage Fund) for compensation for the detrimental impacts to habitat should improvement not occur."

Pence said although "there's always opportunities for things to be clearer," the Lessard-Sams council was never kept in the dark on the county's land management intentions.

"I hate to say this, and I don't want to probably get in trouble for saying it, but Lessard-Sams chose to give the property to us with full knowledge of how we would manage this property," Pence said. "If they didn't want trails on this, than they should have maybe looked at a different possible owner of this property. We're managing this the way we would manage anything else within the county and I have to say, I don't think Lessard-Sams can be surprised that this would be something we'd be looking at doing. There's some potential ... that they didn't check everything out to see how this would be managed when they decided to transfer that ownership into county ownership. We didn't hide anything about it."

The county's interpretation of its openness was challenged in a meeting of the full council in March 2015, when Land Services Director Mark Liedl was roundly criticized by several members.

"You definitely pulled the wool over the council members' eyes," Sue Olson, council member, said to Liedl.

Liedl declined to comment on the Mississippi River Northwoods property to the Brainerd Dispatch, instead referring questions to Pence.

Pence said the Northwoods area is both ecologically sensitive and a "wonderful piece of property"-one he said could have had a much different outcome if developers had their way, including a proposed housing development, golf course and marina.

"They had a proposal out there that would have sucked the breath out of you," Pence said. "There was some very high intense uses that were going to be on that property. And to have these with a few trails on it, I think if you look at it from a conservation perspective, this is a slam dunk compared to what could have been there."



Trail placement a concern

Jenny Smith, president of the Cuyuna Lakes Trail Association, said she became involved in the Northwoods preservation project early on because of the bike trail element.

"That's why I got involved early on, was to make sure that the Cuyuna Lakes trail was approved as a portion of that," Smith said.

Smith said the proposed linkage would also be part of the national Mississippi River Trail, meaning the goal would be to align the trail as close to the river as possible. A portion of the multi-use trail proposal also includes segments near the riverfront, including alongside a bald eagle's nest.

Smith said she was puzzled by the timing of the ATV club's trail application, mainly because she did not feel those groups were part of the discussion early on.

"To my knowledge, there wasn't any discussion about motorized use," Smith said. "Not once was there any motorized group at the table."

Smith said she believes there is room for both motorized and non-motorized use, but it comes down to the placement of the trails.

"We obviously want it as close to the river as possible so that you get the scenic overviews," Smith said. "The other big issue for me is when people are out riding bikes, they like the quiet. They like the solitude. To have the noise of the ATV, or mud trucks, or motorcycles, that just takes away from the whole experience."

Darrel Palmer, trail grant manager of the Central Lakes ATV Club, said he was involved in early discussions and received assurances from The Trust for Public Land that "they weren't precluding the motorized trails."

"The only thing that was precluded was the blacktop trail," Palmer said. "The bill that was drafted specifically only excluded a paved bike trail."

Palmer pointed to a letter of support he wrote in March 2012 to the Trust for Public Land, after the Lessard-Sams council made the decision to recommend funding.

"It is our understanding the purchase of this property is to be added to the Crow Wing County forest system and would be open to motorized trails," the letter stated.


Trails are for all, ATV club says

For ATV groups, the multi-use trail proposal represents an opportunity to preserve trails with a long history of both motorized and non-motorized use.

Russell Heittola of the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders submitted the trail proposal. Heittola said he's ridden on ATVs in the Northwoods area since 1993. Riding on the property prior to county ownership was what's often referred to as "incidental use," meaning it was not officially designated and occurred under private ownership.

"The reason for it is to save them for people to use," Heittola said. "The property should be open to everybody. ... That property has been used by all user groups in the past and that's what we're trying to preserve."

Heittola said grants-in-aid designation from the state would ensure this preservation while also offering other perks, such as violation enforcement, map publication, trail signage and trail ambassadors. Trail ambassadors are trained volunteers who ride the trails, "responsible for greeting fellow outdoor enthusiasts, educating trail users, giving minor aid in emergencies and providing useful information about responsible (off-highway vehicle) use on public lands," the DNR website states.

Heittola's grants-in-aid request includes 11.5 miles of trails, including a small portion outside the Northwoods property border in adjacent county-owned land. A total of 19.6 miles of trails exist within the property, however, and the rest of the trails would still be accessible to motorized use unless posted otherwise. These trails would not be specifically designated for grant dollars, nor would trail ambassadors patrol these. Pence said they were left out of the proposal because they were not considered accessible.

"County maintenance will be going out there periodically to check the roads and such as we do with other trails in the county," Pence said.

Pence said given the size of the parcel, designated trails allowing motorized use might be the only way some can enjoy the property.

"It was dedicated for habitat, opened for people to hunt and fish on," Pence said. "The public should always be able to get on there to hunt and fish. And I struggle with if anyone is going to able to use that parcel if they're not going to be able to use some sort of an ATV or some sort on it just because of the size. I think if you have the inability to use those out there, I think at that point it should have been a DNR (wildlife management area)."

Heittola said his proposal is not exclusive to ATVs but includes use of trails for everybody. He said other user groups are able to submit trail proposals to the county using the same application procedure he used, if they wish to seek trails specifically designated as non-motorized.

"I filled out a proposal for it and I submitted it to the county," Heittola said. "The process is ongoing, so if someone else wants to go out there and designate walking trails, bicycle trails, more snowmobile trails, they have the right to. They just have to go through the process."

Designation of the trail system would make it more accessible to the public while offering potential future linkages with other existing trail systems, including the Southern Loop trail and the Miller Black Bear Area trails, Heittola said.

"Are we hoping that it brings more people into the area? Yes, we are," Heittola said. "More people, more revenue ... for businesses, the motels, resorts, gas stations, restaurants. When people come in, they stop, they spend money."

On Crow Wing County's suitability analysis of the trails proposal, 22 area businesses and community groups are named supporters, including several restaurants and bars in the Crosby area.

Palmer, on the other hand, expressed the opposite expectations of use based on his experience as a trail ambassador.

"If I would see 50 people on a day on a weekend on most of our trails, that would be a busy day," Palmer said. "I just don't think you're going to see tremendously high traffic. ... The more areas we have for them to ride, the more it spreads people out."

In his 2012 letter, however, Palmer emphasized retaining use of the Northwoods property was "critical for local club riding opportunities and increased tourism for Crow Wing County."

Heittola said it is not his group's intention to supercede any other groups interested in access to the property and he has communicated with those associated with the proposed bicycle trail.

"Conversation is good. It gets people to the table, it gets people talking. ... I'm always open to that," Heittola said. "It's always an open-door policy with me to talk about trails."


Opportunity to weigh in

Local people and organizations, including some of those involved in the preservation of the Northwoods property from the beginning, are asking the county to step back and take a more long-term view of planning for its use.

"Because of the size and importance of this land area, the input needs to be gathered and the plan needs to be coordinated and written by experienced planners with knowledge of all aspects of land use management, including but certainly not limited to forestry," former parks committee chair Landers wrote in his public comment.

A letter submitted by Gary Drotts, retired DNR area wildlife supervisor who said he's long viewed the Mississippi River Northwoods as a high priority for habitat protection, also seeks a more comprehensive approach to planning.

"Crow Wing County has a long history of making excellent natural resource management decisions," Drotts stated in his letter. "We believe postponing a decision ... is consistent with that history, thereby enabling time for a much-deserved citizen involvement process."

Pence said the county is offering a public comment period precisely so people can share opinions such as these. Ultimately, he said, the elected commissioners of Crow Wing County will be tasked with deciding whether to move forward with the trail proposal.

"I would hope that the public would be happy that they have the opportunity to provide this comment to us," Pence said. "We want to do it well, we want to manage this property. If there are things that we need to know, that they need to point out to us, that we need to keep an eye on, or do a better job out there, that's what we're trying to accomplish."


Wish to submit a comment?

The proposed trail application and trail suitability analysis may be accessed by visiting and clicking on "Crow Wing County Listens."

Copies of those documents are available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Land Services Building, 322 Laurel St., Brainerd, or by calling 218-824-1115.

Written comments may be emailed to or faxed to 218-824-1126.

Comments are due end of day Friday.


CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or . Follow on Twitter at .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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