Crow Wing County Board: Northwoods trail system gets nod

The Crow Wing County Board approved a proposal Tuesday for a multi-use trail system within a parcel known as the Mississippi River Northwoods. The approval is a culmination of county-level decisions about the trail proposal, which was submitted i...

Adapted Graphic by Jan Finger/Brainerd Dispatch

The Crow Wing County Board approved a proposal Tuesday for a multi-use trail system within a parcel known as the Mississippi River Northwoods.

The approval is a culmination of county-level decisions about the trail proposal, which was submitted in November 2014. The next step is submittal of the trail system to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to be considered for funding through the Off-Highway Vehicle Trails Assistance Program, also known as grant-in-aid.

The approved proposal designates trails within a piece of land nestled between the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport and the Crow Wing County Landfill. Using existing forest roads and motorized trails carved through the property over its years in private ownership, the proposal does not include any new trails or widening of the existing ones.

The application that sought trail designation within the 2,000-acre parcel did not proceed without controversy, with scrutiny arising from local conservationists to state legislators. 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 in 2012 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 land from 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 and followed a prescribed series of steps to obtain county approval for the designation and maintenance of trails long enjoyed by users of all kinds.

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.


DNR commissioner weighs in

Prior to the meeting, the county received and responded to 105 public comments, 73 percent of which were in favor of the proposal. Not included among those comments was the perspective of the DNR, which was initially slated to take ownership of the parcel from the Trust for Public Land before it was decided Crow Wing County would instead. In a June 9 letter, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said he chose to offer his opinion after a conversation on the matter with Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede.

In the letter, Landwehr expressed concern that the trail proposal represented a "potential misalignment" with Outdoor Heritage Funds.

"The Mississippi River Northwoods trail system, as proposed ... may be crossing a threshold beyond which fish and wildlife habitat benefits are subordinate to trail recreation and therefore inconsistent with the language in the constitution," Landwehr wrote. "This could potentially affect a grant-in-aid proposal since grant-in-aid funds cannot be granted when a recipient is in violation of federal or state laws."

But, he added, the DNR manages properties containing both motorized and non-motorized trails also purchased with those funds. The uses can be compatible with habitat protection, Landwehr wrote, but he suggested Crow Wing County consider changes to the proposal to achieve that compatibility.


Among those suggestions was increased specificity about the management of trails on the property that would remain undesignated. Although there are 19.6 miles of existing trails on the Northwoods property, just 10 of those miles are included in the trail proposal. The remaining 1.5 miles listed in the proposal are in county land adjacent to the parcel in question.

In an April interview, Land Services Supervisor Chris Pence said these 9.6 miles were left out of the proposal because they were not considered accessible. County forest policy, however, dictates those trails remain open to motorized use unless posted closed. All of the trails on the property are currently open to multiple uses, including motorized vehicles.

Land Services Director Mark Liedl told the board Tuesday he felt the letter confirmed his own view the trail designation honors the intentions of the Outdoor Heritage funds. He said a possible solution to Landwehr's concern-also expressed in a letter from the chairman of the Lessard-Sams council-would be to close the undesignated trails.

"An option would be too for the board to say, well we'd like to manage this differently, and we could establish a limited trail designation for this property, rather than the current countywide managed trail designation policy that we follow," Liedl said.

Gary Drotts, retired DNR area wildlife supervisor who was involved with the preservation of the Northwoods property early on, told the board during a public comment period he agreed with this limited approach. He said leaving the trails open left them subject to "trail creep," something he said he's witnessed on public lands.

"Not all of those are logging roads," Drotts said. "(Some) were hacked out by chainsaw and brush saw to connect loops. ... That's the stuff that happens under a managed classification."


Heintzeman offers legislator's perspective


State Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, told the board he felt opposition toward the trail proposal on the basis of constitutional questions represented a metro perspective. Heintzeman serves as vice chair of the Legacy Funding Finance committee in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

"As a northern legislator coming to St. Paul, it's important to remember and recognize that the folks here thought of that in a completely different context than maybe folks down in Hennepin County," Heintzeman said. "We need to play together, we need to work together."

Thiede said as long as Heintzeman was in attendance, he wanted to express his concern that Crow Wing County would be penalized for its approval of a trail system, given the dissension.

"I think that would be a travesty of justice," Thiede said. "We were very upfront and honest about, we're going to manage it as we manage our other lands. I have heard too many grumblings and have been called too many names in this process."

Heintzeman said there were difficult conversations on the subject, but said he believed the difficulty stemmed from fear of success.

"I hate to say it, but the fear at a number of those different points has been that it will be successful, and that other counties across the state will also want to participate in that success," Heintzeman said.

A number of people testified in favor of proposal to the board, including two members of the citizen committee that in May recommended approval to the county board: Darrel Palmer and Larry Moses, both of whom are involved in recreational vehicle clubs. Palmer is the trail grant manager of the Central Lakes ATV Club and Moses is involved with the Merrifield Marathons Snowmobile Club. Russell Heittola, who submitted the proposal on behalf of the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders ATV club, also spoke in favor.



A vote in favor

Other commissioners present expressed views on the proposal. Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom said she felt at the time of the county's acquisition of the property, motorized use was not made clear.

"There was never conversation about the motorized vehicles," Nystrom said. "They presented it to us that this is this pristine piece of property that we can designate."

Commissioner Rosemary Franzen told Nystrom, "I will totally disagree with you."

"That was part of our proposal, that we would manage the trails," Franzen said. "We're not doing anything, we're not taking down a tree. The clubs just want to get the money from the DNR so they can manage."

Commissioner Paul Koering said he saw the issue as "black and white."

"All we have is we've got a very responsible ATV club that wants to have managed trails," Koering said. "They go through the trails, they pick up garbage. ... I don't know what the problem is. You can ride there now."

Koering later added he did not appreciate Landwehr's perspective.


"We're the ones that are in charge of that property out there," he said. "If the DNR doesn't think that we can manage it properly, I'll make a motion that they can have it back."

Following a short recess, the board reconvened and Koering made the motion to approve the trail proposal, with a second from Franzen. The proposal was approved 3-1, with Nystrom opposed. Chairman Doug Houge was absent Tuesday, with Thiede acting as chairman in his absence. Houge previously expressed approval of the proposal as a voting member of the Natural Resources Advisory Committee.


Liedl speaks on process

In an interview after Tuesday's meeting, Liedl said he believed the board made the best decision for protecting habitat in the Mississippi River Northwoods. If the trails receive grant-in-aid funding, Liedl said it would greatly enhance the county's capacity to ensure the trails are maintained and violations enforced.

The board did not offer direction on the 9.6 miles of undesignated trails, so Liedl said they would remain open to motorized use without state funding to maintain them. He said generally, the county does not maintain those trails on county land unless they become aware of a problem.

"There's so many trails out there," Liedl said. "As an ongoing management effort, law enforcement ongoing, (it's) not like if it were a designated trail. That's why we go for the grant-in-aid funding, because it allows all of that to happen."

As far as the controversy over whether Crow Wing County was forthcoming with its intentions for the property, Liedl is unequivocal in his assertion the county was clear it would manage the Mississippi River Northwoods property as it does all other county forestland. This includes the consideration of recreational trail proposals within those lands.


"There was such, kind of a zeal, to get this done, that I don't think they (the Lessard-Sams council) did their homework," Liedl said. "They didn't do their work, their due diligence. ... It was a relatively new committee, they had a bunch of money to give. I just don't think their internal procedures or vetting or analysis of these things was very thorough. But we didn't know that.

"We knew there were trails on there, the Trust for Public Land knew there were trails on there. We thought everybody knew there were trails on there. Anybody who looked would see there were trails on there that were being used. So, you know, I don't know how we could have done anything differently, because we weren't aware that they weren't doing their research."

Liedl said if the DNR chose not to award grant-in-aid funds, the county would still designate the trail system, but just would not have as many resources to maintain the system. He said a cross country ski trail managed by the county fits this description and is mowed by the county. There are currently no designated trails with motorized uses allowed that do not receive grant-in-aid funding, however, so how the county might address maintenance would be determined if that situation arose.


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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