Committee begins work to find safe ATV route to Cuyuna area cities
The trail’s proximity to the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area — home to 50 miles of single-track mountain bike trails managed by the DNR and closed to motorized use — adds a layer of potential controversy.
BRAINERD — Finding agreement on a safe trail route for all-terrain vehicles to visit Cuyuna lakes area cities is the goal of a new citizen committee — but navigating a checkerboard of private property and one of the state’s most popular mountain biking destinations could be a challenge.
The 13-member Safe Route Connection Project Committee met in late May at the Crow Wing County Land Services Building, the first of monthly meetings planned through October to consider how to link the Miller Black Bear Trail to Crosby, Ironton and Cuyuna, along with nearby state ATV trails.
“We want a route that will work for as many people as possible, as many communities, as many stakeholders, as many recreation user groups as possible,” said Katie Fernholz, president of natural resources consulting firm Dovetail Partners, at the meeting. “So that is the goal, and we’ll just have to kind of work our way toward that goal.”
The committee and use of a consultant is a departure from Crow Wing County’s usual internal process for considering trail proposals. County commissioners agreed to hire Dovetail in March after land services staff and Chairman Doug Houge — who represents the area on the County Board — noted the complexity and differing opinions surrounding the expansion. The committee includes representatives of area cities and a township, local business owners, snowmobile trail association members, bicycle trail association members, an ATV club member and a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer.
The Miller Black Bear Trail covers 20 miles through Wolford and Irondale townships along with the city of Trommald, traversing county- and state-managed forestlands. The trail is in the midst of a 12.5-mile expansion headed by the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders ATV club , including new construction and the use of existing undesignated and unmanaged forest trails already open to ATV use.
Although informally in the works for some time, according to environmental services supervisor Ryan Simonson, connecting the trail to area cities and state trails was recently identified as an “enhancement opportunity” in the county’s updated recreational use plan.
Debating shared use
The trail’s proximity to the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area — home to 50 miles of single-track mountain bike trails managed by the DNR and closed to motorized use — adds a layer of potential controversy. The rec area, which sits between the end of the ATV trail and the city of Crosby, played a significant role May 23 during public comments and discussion among committee members.
Crosby business owner Susan Arndt broached the subject first.
“I just wanted on the record that we are for a safe route to town for ATVers, but we’re also opposed to a route that would go into the rec area and affect the safety of nonmotorized riders there. We’re, you know, a fan of safety while you’re recreating,” Arndt said.
Paul Kirkman, owner of Victual in Crosby, joined Arndt in her sentiment.
“I like the idea of getting ATV traffic to Crosby. I’m a business owner and I don’t want to turn away potential customers,” Kirkman said. “And I, like Susan, want to go on record that I don’t think it should be through the … recreation trail area.”
Andy Suchla, vice president of the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders, responded by saying the club doesn’t want to go through the rec area but wants a safe way around it or to skirt its edge. He pointed to an existing snowmobile trail within the boundaries and suggested it could serve a dual purpose for ATVs.
“There are so many ways where a trail connects or crosses to make the ATV stop, to make pedal bikes stop, for safety — both directions. We can put gates up across our trail so we have to slow down,” Suchla said. “ … We all have to think together on that because that’s what we’re trying to do, is find a safe route. I just don’t like the idea that everyone says that the ATVs are trying to go through the state rec area. That’s really not what we’re trying to do.”
Tim Sink, a member of the committee and the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders, followed Suchla by evoking the Redhead Mountain Bike Park in Chisholm as an example of shared motorized and bicycle use.
“It crosses back and forth across that ATV trail multiple times the length of the trail,” Sink said. “So you have shared portions there, also.”
“They also have less than 10,000 annual mountain bikers and last year, we had 118,000,” responded committee member Chuck Carlson, vice president of the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail Association. “So it’s a little apples and oranges. I’ve been there, I’ve ridden it, and it’s a different experience, that’s for sure.”
“And there’s not a lot of children that can ride that trail,” added committee member Lori Vosacek of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew, who leads youth mountain biking classes in the rec area. “That trail’s not really appropriate for children, but the rec area is loaded with them. I have two programs that run 80 kids in that — both programs, right now, on those trails that are right next to the snowmobile trail. Have you ever had a 7-year-old take a left, ‘Show me your left hand?’ That’s all it takes, is one wrong turn.”
Committee member Joe Bednarczyk of Irondale Township immediately followed by holding up a photo of a paved trail, one half marked for ATV use and the other half marked for bicycle use. Bednarczyk said the trail is located in Moose Lake.
“They share the Soo Line for about a good half-mile,” he said. “And they get along.”
Carlson again shared his view he didn’t feel the example was comparable to the recreation area in usage.
“I think the concern is it’s more right in the heart of the rec area and … parallel to the heaviest use areas,” Carlson said.
The consultant Fernholz said the conversation was an important one and the committee would likely want to flag areas that might be shared corridors.
“What are these challenges that we’re going to face? Because we’re going to start looking for alternative routes, but then we’re going to start to look at, where’s the push points here? And what do we know about the solutions to these push points?” she said.
“ … When we talked about how committee members here have knowledge and experience to bring to this project, this is exactly it. You all have your recreational experiences, and these are the experiences we have to share. … This isn’t personal. This is very professional for our communities and for our recreation experiences.”
Carlson said he was confident there were a number of alternatives to using the snowmobile trail in the rec area.
“I hate to get too heated into that conversation about that particular corridor when I really do feel there are some really good options out there that don’t include that very busy corridor,” he said.
The next committee meeting is set for June 28 in meeting rooms 1 and 2 at the land services building. Committee members are expected to review giant maps of the area and draw out potential routes. Public comment periods will occur at each monthly meeting through October, with a presentation of the final committee recommendation to the county’s Natural Resources Advisory Committee planned for November. The committee’s recommended route would proceed through the typical five-step process outlined in county policy, ultimately coming before the County Board for consideration.
While user groups debated the matter during the meeting, a March 15 letter from the DNR to the Crow Wing County Board made clear the state agency is not on board with a route through the recreation area.
The letter signed by Ann Pierce, director of the DNR’s division of parks and trails, called an off-highway vehicle route through the area “not feasible.”
“When the DNR was approached last fall regarding a potential OHV (off-highway vehicle) connection through the CCSRA (Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area) we pointed out that this would require that the master plan be amended via a public engagement process and consultation with the CCSRA Advisory Council,” the letter stated. “We also noted that concerns raised by current users of the CCSRA and Cuyuna Lakes State Trail would need to be addressed if such a route were to be socially sustainable. Since that time, it has become abundantly clear that there continue to be significant concerns from current users and there is not support for a plan amendment.”
The DNR does support exploring other options to connect the trail, according to the letter, and suggested an analysis led by the local community with a robust public engagement process would be best.
“We very much appreciate the ongoing dialogue about this matter and the multiple perspectives that have been shared,” the letter stated. “The DNR continues to be committed to supporting the many ways that Minnesotans wish to connect to the outdoors, while also recognizing that not all uses are compatible in the same spaces.”
Also on record in opposition to a rec area route are state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, and the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce. Both shared support for the ATV club and its final goal of bringing riders into area cities, but not through Cuyuna Country.
“Our Chamber has supported multiple funding efforts to expand and enhance the CCSRA, and we continue to track increased interest in ‘silent sports’ as part of the Brainerd Lakes Area tourism experience,” stated a March 7 letter to the County Board signed by Matt Kilian, chamber president. “In Crosby, part of the allure is the unique ability for bikers to travel from their lodging to the trails and the downtown area. Elected leaders and government agencies should take great care to avoid disrupting these routes.”
CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or email@example.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .