ATV trail restrictions snag land conservation project in Crow Wing County
A previous conflict with the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council over the development of all-terrain vehicle trails led to skepticism by some county commissioners over restrictions on a new conservation project proposed in Timothy Township, north of the Whitefish Chain of Lakes.
Frustration from some Crow Wing County commissioners over state-imposed restrictions on new motorized trail development threw a wrench in a land conservation project Tuesday, June 9.
Representatives from The Conservation Fund provided details on the project during the county board meeting Tuesday and asked commissioners to pass a resolution approving acquisition of 360 acres of land currently owned by PotlatchDeltic (formerly Potlatch Corp.).
In the works since 2018, the proposal would see The Conservation Fund purchasing the property and shifting ownership to the county to manage as part of ongoing efforts to preserve undeveloped forestland. The effort also includes partnerships with Cass County, the city of Baxter and Sylvan Township, with some acquisition focused on property near Camp Ripley.
The entire project encompasses 1,560 acres, 998 of which are in Crow Wing County. A total of 638 of those acres would be transferred into Baxter ownership. Forty acres in Crow Wing Township are part of the Camp Ripley segment, while another 320 acres in Timothy Township — located in northern Crow Wing County near the Whitefish Chain of Lakes — is adjacent to existing county forestland.
“Project parcels were selected by county staff for their adjacency to county-managed forest and will improve overall forest-management activities, as well as provide high-quality wildlife habitat and public access benefits. The properties contain jack pine, red pine, and mixed hardwood forests,” a fact sheet on the project stated.
The land acquisition is funded in part by a grant from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which makes funding recommendations to the Minnesota Legislature for use of tax dollars collected in the Outdoor Heritage Fund as part of the 2008 Legacy Amendment.
Troubled by trail restrictions
Following a project rundown by Emilee Nelson, Minnesota associate in conservation acquisition with The Conservation Fund, Commissioner Doug Houge asked for clarification on how all-terrain vehicle trails would be managed on the property.
“When you say it’s open to ATVs, is that if there’s an existing trail or is that open to a new trail application that may come before us?” Houge asked.
Nelson said that question came up during the presentation to the Lessard-Sams council.
“What we’ve agreed to with them was to build no new trails, however the existing trails (forest roads) are able to stay in place,” Nelson said. “So if that application were to come forward it would not be a use that would work with the funding source.”
Houge said he was frustrated by this restriction on the county’s ability to manage the property as it does the majority of the other forestland it owns.
“It’s a way for the Outdoor Heritage funding to kind of put a chokehold on potential motorized use in Crow Wing County forest properties,” Houge said. “I think we went through this a couple years back and it’s just frustrating to see that we just keep pecking away at these 40s, 80s, whatever they are, and we’re a county of diverse recreational activities. But we start putting all these blockers out there that limit us to what use we can have on them.
“Until the committee expands and allows the counties to use … properties for the best use, I just can’t support these anymore, because we’re just being hand-tied to future development.”
The previous matter related to conservation land and ATV trails Houge referenced was the county’s 2,000-acre Mississippi River Northwoods project. Acquired from the Potlatch Corp. with $11 million from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, the Mississippi River Northwoods property nestled between the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport and the Crow Wing County Landfill. It contains 2.7 miles of river shoreline and combined with adjacent properties, the land acquisition shielded more than 9 miles of contiguous Mississippi River shoreline from development.
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Conflict over the county board's approval of an 11.5-mile trail system heated up in 2016 when the Lessard-Sams council explored potential legal action against the county. Council members argued Crow Wing County acted in defiance of the state constitution by allowing ATVs on land intended for conservation. Crow Wing County officials maintained they were clear about how the land would be managed from the beginning, including potential trail designation.
The disagreement ended in a 2017 compromise passed by the county board that closed all trails not part of the trail system to recreational motorized vehicles. The limited designation differs from the policy on most of the county's 105,000 acres of forestland, on which motorized use is allowed unless posted closed.
County Administrator Tim Houle said Tuesday the project currently under consideration fell within a general county effort to divest in isolated forestland parcels and consolidate ownership for increased access for forest management, although he noted specifics, including potential limitations were not part of that discussion.
Chairman Paul Koering said, “I didn’t know we were going to have different groups go and buy it and say here, here’s a gift but you can’t … ”
“You can’t use it,” Commissioner Rosemary Franzen finished.
“We got into a big fight with Lessard-Sams with the property right north of the landfill,” Koering continued. “I’m a no vote today unless you can go back and talk to Lessard-Sams.”
Land Services Director Gary Griffin approached the microphone to explain what he felt his department’s directive was in working on the acquisition project.
“Our No. 1 priority was those healthy forests and that management, granted that ATV trails are an additional use that we want to encourage, but it wasn’t our primary focus,” Griffin said. “So that’s why it was here in front of you today, thinking that our direction was — which if we are off, by all means — was to consolidate our land base, get better protection and better forest management to secure wildlife habitat and water runoff to our beautiful lakes in this county. And if we can, definitely get ATV trails and very robust recreation as a secondary or third option.”
Koering told Griffin he was “right on the mark,” but said the problem comes in when the Lessard-Sams council flexes its muscles in land management.
“The only problem that I have is I don’t want some committee down at the State Capitol deciding how Crow Wing County is going to manage our properties,” Koering said. “ … These people are elected up here by the citizens of Crow Wing County. And they’re the ones who are supposed to be managing this, not some big shot sitting down in some committee room down there. That isn’t the way it works. … I think if you go and talk to your constituents, commissioners, I think they’ll say, ‘Oh, hell no.’”
Franzen said while she appreciated the willingness of Lessard-Sams to provide funding, she agreed with Koering and Houge.
“When a gift comes with strings, it isn’t a gift any longer,” Franzen said. “We have worked so hard to develop a connecting group of trails. I can’t vote yes on this. Not if it comes with the strings that we can’t ever put another trail in there. It’s just a no.”
Houge said he agreed with Griffin’s characterization and suggested going back to Lessard-Sams to learn if there was some flexibility.
“They’re not a very motorized friendly group down there, and we are up here. That’s what brings recreation to our areas, that’s what people come here to do, like it or not,” he said. “Maybe it’s time to … see if there’s some give and take in this thing.”
Commissioner Steve Barrows said he felt it was important to balance recreational opportunities with economic opportunities. He said with trail constraints on those relatively small plots of land, the county could look at creating winding routes that could honor those restrictions while perhaps enhancing the enjoyment of riding through the forest.
“I would suggest that we need to look at the economic impact of being able to manage these pieces of forest when we can’t do it now, and so we have no income off of these pieces of property now,” Barrows said. “My point being, we can create trails on our own properties that we currently manage and create good recreational opportunities for those people, and still have on the other side, a piece of property and get some income from being able to manage those forests.”
Koering asked Houle whether the county could bypass the partnership with The Conservation Fund and purchase the property on its own. Houle said his best guess is the purchase price would be about $2 million — a price tag Koering acknowledged would dissuade that course of action.
Todd Holman, who coordinates the Camp Ripley Sentinel Landscape program, told the board he thought rather than voting the project down, he saw value in discussing concerns with Lessard-Sams. Holman suggested the county could seek a compromise in which if a trail application were submitted, other trails could be decommissioned for a zero-net gain in trail mileage.
Nelson said trails are an issue constantly discussed by Lessard-Sams and it’s a big concern, especially in the northern half of the state. She said delaying the project would not put funding in jeopardy, but she would discuss with PotlatchDeltic separating the parcels associated with Camp Ripley to move forward.
Barrows made a motion to table the resolution, with a second from Commissioner Bill Brekken. The county board agreed to the tabling with the intent to approach Lessard-Sams for further negotiation.
CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or email@example.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .