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Crow Wing County: State council questions legality of Northwoods trails

Was Crow Wing County's recent designation of a trail system within a parcel of land known as the Mississippi River Northwoods lawful? The state council that approved purchase of the land in question using Legacy Amendment funds unanimously voted ...

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The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council voted unanimously to seek legal advice over Crow Wing County's approval of a multi-use trail system within the Mississippi River Northwoods property. The property was acquired with the use of $11 million from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, one of four funds established through the 2008 Legacy Amendment. Adapted Graphic by Jan Finger/Brainerd Dispatch

Was Crow Wing County's recent designation of a trail system within a parcel of land known as the Mississippi River Northwoods lawful?

The state council that approved purchase of the land in question using Legacy Amendment funds unanimously voted to seek an answer to that question at its most recent meeting. The motion directed staff of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to seek a legal opinion from the state attorney general on the matter. The action was one of several the council took regarding the Northwoods property, the latest in the ongoing controversy over whether the county's actions square with the state constitution.

Acquired from the Potlatch Corporation in 2012 for more than $11 million, the Mississippi River Northwoods property is 2,000 acres nestled between the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport and the Crow Wing County Landfill. It contains 2.7 miles of river shoreline and was selected for habitat protection through the Outdoor Heritage Fund, a stash of state sales tax dollars constitutionally dedicated for land preservation by the 2008 Legacy Amendment. Combined with adjacent properties, the land acquisition shielded more than 9 miles of contiguous Mississippi River shoreline from development.

At issue is whether a designated multi-use trail system-which allows all-terrain vehicle use-is appropriate for a parcel acquired for these specific purposes. Crow Wing County officials maintain they were clear about how the land would be managed from the beginning, including potential trail designation. Lessard-Sams council members, however, continue to express disappointment and exasperation as Crow Wing County has proceeded on the trail system.

"We need to remain vigilant to not let projects that are parks or anything else in habitat clothing be presented as a habitat project," said Jane Kingston, Lessard-Sams council member. "We have to stay extremely vigilant to not water this fund down. This is the first example of the nightmare that can come out of it."

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Almost two years after receiving the trail application from local ATV club Cuyuna Iron Range Riders, the Crow Wing County Board approved it. 

The trails were open to motorized use once the county took ownership, which is Crow Wing County's policy for all its 105,000 acres of forest land unless specifically posted as closed. The next step for the county is to apply for grant-in-aid funding from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Off-Highway Vehicle Trails Assistance Program, which offers funding opportunities to support maintenance, signage and enforcement.

A second motion approved by the Lessard-Sams council requested the DNR cease any further action related to the property, including grant-in-aid funding.

"Many of us don't think ATVs were ever meant to be on this property, so we don't want the state of Minnesota to give the county a grant while we're in this situation that we're in," said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, one of the legislative members of the council.

Mark Johnson, executive director of Lessard-Sams, sent a letter to DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr expressing the council's opinion.

"Council consensus appears to be that this designation of trails is leading to an almost certain intensification of all-terrain vehicle activity upon MRNW (Mississippi River Northwoods) that could be antagonistic to wildlife habitat health and is incongruent with the original intent of the appropriation," the letter stated.

Chris Pence, supervisor with Crow Wing County Land Services, said the county has not yet submitted its application to the DNR. Nor has it received any indication from the DNR whether it intends to follow the nonbinding direction from the Lessard-Sams council, he added. Pence said the county will proceed as it would with any other trail system and could submit its grant-in-aid request as early as next week.

"We're comfortable with the decision we made ... that it was allowed within the purview of what was approved by the council," Pence said in a phone interview Friday.

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Another issue discussed by the Lessard-Sams council concerning the Northwoods property was the possibility of Crow Wing County pursuing a land exchange with the state. Pence said the county was considering seeking an exchange of a portion of the Northwoods property closest to the airport runway for state land adjacent to both the property and Highway 210.

Several Lessard-Sams council members were vocal in their opposition to considering approval of a land exchange in light of the uncertainty surrounding the trails. Because some of the land is part of the Northwoods property, it would require Lessard-Sams approval.

"There's no way in hell I'm going to vote on a land exchange as long as they're running ATVs out there," said David Hartwell, Lessard-Sams council member. "They're kicking sand in our face and then asking us to be nice to them. It's not going to happen from me."

Official actions from the council included denying a DNR request to use Lessard-Sams funds to pay for a review of any appraisal conducted of the properties under consideration for exchange, and a motion asking Crow Wing County to halt any actions related to the exchange.

"With respect to the council's request of Crow Wing County to not proceed with any appraisal process, the council members expressed their concern that the county receive this message as soon as possible so that the county does not unnecessarily waste county staff time nor accrue unnecessary expenses," stated a June 30 letter to Mark Liedl, Crow Wing County Land Services director.

Pence said given the council's strong stance on the matter, county officials were no longer pursuing the land exchange.

"At this point, it appears as though the exchange is not an option," Pence said. "It doesn't sound like they are interested in approving anything no matter what. ... We don't think we're going to put any money or time into that."

Johnson said Friday he expected to give the Lessard-Sams council an update on the matter at its next meeting, which is Aug. 4 at the State Office Building in St. Paul.

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CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

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 chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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