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Committee grapples with forwarding Cuyuna area ATV trail recommendation

Entrenched viewpoints, missing information, a ranking system viewed as potentially flawed and the specter that none of the three routes may be safe enough led some to speculate the monthslong effort

Miller Black Bear Trailhead.
The Miller Black Bear Trailhead is located near Iverson Road in the city of Trommald. It is the entry point for the all-terrain vehicle trail in warmer months and the snowmobile trail in the winter.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — A county engineer analysis raising safety issues with potential all-terrain vehicle trail routes in the Cuyuna lakes area was the latest information to complicate efforts of a citizen committee tasked with recommending the best path forward.

In a Sept. 26 letter presented to the Safe Route Connection Project Committee during its Tuesday, Sept. 27, meeting, County Engineer Tim Bray described his concerns with both the safety of riders and motorists as well as erosion and rutting created by ATV use.

Bray made personal visits to the county roadway corridors along which the routes under consideration would travel — including county highways 30, 34 and 59 and County Road 128 — and also visited existing ATV trails near roads for comparison. Exclusive use of the roadway ditch by ATVs would be impossible in the examined areas, Bray concluded.

People sit around a table during a meeting
Dovetail Partners President Katie Fernholz, left, facilitates as Chuck Carlson of the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail Association, Lori Vosacek of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew and Wade Miller, area supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Parks and Trails Division, listen during a Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, meeting of the Safe Route Connection Project Committee at the Crow Wing County Land Services Building in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“Although some areas may be able to accommodate ATV use for a short distance, several others are characterized by steep slopes, narrow ditch bottoms, wetlands, and other sensitive areas,” Bray wrote. “These would require riders to transition between the ditch to the narrow gravel shoulder, or in some cases the actual traveled lane of traffic. Each of these situations are concerning because they can create unsafe situations for ATV riders as well as other users of the roadway.”

Bray noted because one of the potential routes would use right of way along a portion of Highway 210, the Minnesota Department of Transportation must also be consulted — something that won’t happen until Tuesday, Oct. 4.

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“Over the last week, I have gained a deeper appreciation of how difficult the Safe Route decision will be,” Bray wrote. “I fully understand that each of the route proposals involves a county roadway that may be impacted. I remain hopeful that these impacts can somehow be minimized.”

At issue

The desire of the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders ATV club to establish a link between the Miller Black Bear Trail and the cities of Crosby and Ironton, along with nearby state ATV trails, is the driving force behind the committee. The club’s preferred route would traverse the southern edge of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area , the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources-managed home to 50 miles of single-track mountain bike trails currently closed to motorized use.

MountsainBikers2.jpg
Joe, foreground; Scott; Henry; Jon and Brooke Stephenson round the curve Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, on the Switchback Train in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. The Wisconsin parents homeschool their children and decided to travel to the park for a day of mountain biking.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Mountain biking enthusiasts, a number of local business owners, nearby property owners, the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, state Sen. Carrie Ruud and the DNR itself have declared their opposition to the trail entering the recreation area, held up as a silent sports sanctuary and a massive boon to the local economy.

The ATV club and its supporters, however, insist a trail entering the southern border of Cuyuna Country would be minimally invasive — in part utilizing an existing snowmobile trail — and is the safest option for ATVers, who have their own positive economic impact in the cities they’d be able to visit more readily.

A map showing the routes under consideration for an ATV trail near the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area
A map shows the three routes under consideration by the Safe Route Connection Project Committee to connect the Miller Black Bear Trail system with the cities of Crosby and Ironton, along with state all-terrain vehicle trails.
Contributed / Crow Wing County

In anticipation of this clash of perspectives, Crow Wing County departed from its typical trail consideration process in March to hire an environmental consultant and form the Safe Route committee. Meeting monthly since May , the group has narrowed its options to three routes, with the one drawing the most ire remaining on the table.

Road to recommendation

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Tuesday’s agenda called for the committee to determine the route it would recommend to the county’s Natural Resources Advisory Committee, which would, in turn, make its own recommendation to the Crow Wing County Board for approval. But reactions to Bray’s letter at the well-attended meeting reflected growing frustration among members about whether the committee will fulfill its mission at all. Entrenched viewpoints, missing information, a ranking system viewed as potentially flawed and the specter that none of the three routes may be safe enough led some to speculate the monthslong effort might be moot.

“It says it’s impossible on 30, 34 and 128 — well, isn’t that every route that we designed?” said committee member Vern Lewis, a Crosby-area real estate agent. “So how do we get — do we scrap all of them? Because how are we going to get around?”

People sit at a table during a meeting
Committee members Vern Lewis, left, and Nick Huisinga participate in a Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, meeting of the Safe Route Connection Project Committee at the Crow Wing County Land Services Building in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Chuck Carlson, vice president of the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail Association, noted Bray’s analysis concerned the ditches in their current state, not necessarily precluding the potential for a designed purpose-built trail. Carlson is an advocate for Route A, a northerly route using county highways 30 and 34 and avoiding what he and others have described as the busiest corridor in the recreation area.

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“We live in an area where we have world-class mountain bike trails, we have world-class paved trails — a network that extends through a greater part of some of the most beautiful parts of the state of Minnesota,” Carlson said. “Why can’t we create an ATV trail that is world-class, and go for the state bonding, go for the funding that we need to do this right? I think our community should work for that.”

“The problem is, where?” replied Tom Jann, vice president of the Crow Wing County Snowmobile Trail Association, prompting laughter. The quip pointing out the obvious provided one of the few moments of levity during a meeting that otherwise often veered into well-trodden territory of arguments for or against the recreation area route.

“I’d like to comment on building a world-class trail — if you’re going to do that, then the logical thing to do is to make it the shortest trail possible and make it the best possible,” said Jim Traylor, a member of the committee and the Crosby City Council. “That’s what I see.”

Committee members sit in a semicircle
The Safe Route Connection Project Committee meets Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, at the Crow Wing County Land Services Building in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

The shortest route of the three is Route C, or the ATV club’s preferred route.

“See, there’s an issue with that,” Carlson responded.

“It’s less mileage. A world-class trail is expensive,” Traylor said. “But if we can build something super nice and the shortest distance that protects everybody … ”

“But it doesn’t protect everybody,” interjected committee member Lori Vosacek of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew, who leads youth mountain biking classes.

“But it might. You don’t know what the trail will be,” Traylor said.

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Vosacek recounted opposition to the proposed trail and referenced a threat of legal action if Route C moves forward. An attorney representing the Cuyuna Regional Economic Council sent a Sept. 26 letter to committee members criticizing the process and describing the significant hurdles to Route C’s approval, including amending the master plan of the recreation area, DNR support and legislation.

Vosacek also noted the recreation area stands to lose an impactful designation as a Silver Level Ride Center from the International Mountain Bicycling Association if an ATV trail is approved there. Cuyuna is one of 22 gold or silver centers in the world, according to the association’s criteria.

A uniformed DNR officer speaks while seated at a table
Committee member and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Tony Flerlage offers his view during a Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, meeting of the Safe Route Connection Project Committee at the Crow Wing County Land Services Building in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

DNR Conservation Officer Tony Flerlage, a committee member, said he couldn’t recommend any of the routes.

“For me personally, I can’t look at any of the three and say that it is a safe route. Right now as it is for me, I’d rather have Route A stay as it is … and I can’t see C or D being safe either. So everything I’ve seen and heard, I know I don’t like any of them.”

Tim Sink, a member of the ATV club and the committee, suggested recommending routes A and C, noting the lengthy process is just beginning and the committee is a small part.

“Whatever we come up with here isn’t, ‘OK, this is it, this is where the road’s going,’” Sink said. “ … Push A and C forward and let the process take care of itself. The bikes aren’t going to like it but that’s why we need to do both, because we’re just going to be at a standstill. Nothing is going to happen.”

People sit at a table and listen
Committee members Joe Bednarcyk of Irondale Township, left, and Tim Sink of the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders ATV Club listen during a Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, meeting of the Safe Route Connection Project Committee at the Crow Wing County Land Services Building in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“If we think we’re going to have a consensus … you know, obviously that’s not going to happen,” added committee member Nick Huisinga, owner of Cuyuna Brewing Co. “But we have limited the scope and we’ve brought up all kinds of issues. There’s been lots of things accomplished still. And every trail was graded with the same flawed system. So can we just put it forward? It’s kind of foolish to think that it’s in our hands anyways.”

“At the next meeting, we’ll all be sitting here doing the same exact thing,” said committee member Joe Bednarcyk, representing Irondale Township.

“Not listening to each other,” Vosacek said.

“Wasting time,” Bednarcyk finished.

Heintzeman, others give opinions

The public comment period featured a variety of viewpoints, including a Blackhoof Lake resident who wished to share comments he’d gathered from neighbors concerned about Route C’s proximity to the lake, a social worker asking the committee to remember people with disabilities while making their decisions, and a volunteer firefighter who described traumatic scenes she’d witnessed at crash scenes involving motor vehicles.

Man gestures as he speaks
A resident of Blackhoof Lake voices concerns about a proposed all-terrain vehicle route through the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area during a Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, meeting of the Safe Route Connection Project Committee at the Crow Wing County Land Services Building in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Also appearing Tuesday was Rep. Josh Heintzeman, who relayed what he recalled about conversations with bicycle advocacy groups when they sought bonding money for the Cuyuna mountain biking trails.

“Rep. (Dale) Lueck and I had a number of concerns, but one of them was, what’s going to happen when we need a safe route? We’re at that point,” Heintzeman said. “And we were told by those advocating for dollars that there would be an open dialogue. And there was an interest, specifically at that time, that we would be able to have this conversation and move forward with what, I think we can all agree, is a great objective: the safest possible route for folks on ATVs and bicycles.

Josh Heintzeman stands speaking to an audience
State Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, speaks during the public forum portion of a Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, meeting of the Safe Route Connection Project Committee at the Crow Wing County Land Services Building in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“I would hope that people in a position to make a decision would go deep inside of themselves and try to recall where we were when we were looking forward to trying to develop the Cuyuna rec area and remember that there was a lot of very positive conversations with lots of user groups over the course of that time.”

After hearing public comments, the committee concluded Tuesday without determining a preferred route and handed a list of questions to be answered to Gary Griffin, Crow Wing County land services director, before the next and possibly final meeting. Without a settled-upon recommendation, the group agreed to nix a tentative open house in October.

The next meeting will take place 6-8 p.m. Oct. 24 in the Crow Wing County Land Services Building.

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at 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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