Crow Wing County pumps the brakes on possible Cuyuna area ATV trail

Facing a 6-6-4 split vote between advancing three route proposals, officials said there’s nothing more for the county to consider as it stands.

Photo illustration, Metro Creative Graphics, Inc.

BRAINERD — An all-terrain vehicle trail proposal that inspired passionate debate in the Cuyuna lakes area will not move forward.

After six months of meetings, 12 members of a citizen committee tasked with evaluating the pros and cons of potential routes failed to reach a consensus in late October. Whether the trail pursued by the local ATV club should be allowed to dip into a busy corridor of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, a mountain biking destination, garnered much of the group’s focus.

Driving the exercise was the desire of the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders to establish a link between the Miller Black Bear Trail and the cities of Crosby and Ironton, along with nearby state ATV trails. The likelihood of a clash of viewpoints between motorized and nonmotorized recreation advocates — along with a checkerboard of property ownership in the area — prompted the establishment of the Safe Route Connection Project Committee in the first place, along with the hiring of environmental consultant Dovetail Partners.

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Commissioners approved up to a $30,000 expenditure for the process, half of which would be covered by a grant from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. This differed from typical Crow Wing County practice in evaluating potential trails and was promoted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which manages the rec area.

If the committee had settled on a recommendation, the county’s Natural Resources Advisory Committee would have taken up the matter next, followed by the County Board. But facing a 6-6-4 split vote between advancing three route proposals, officials said there’s nothing more for the county to consider as it stands.


“It’s hard to escape the conclusion that it’s disappointing,” said County Administrator Tim Houle during a Tuesday, Dec. 20, interview. “ … This was a departure from the normal county process because we knew that this was going to be a tougher project, and so the normal process wasn’t going to be sufficient. We constructed a process for the interested stakeholders to come together and see if they couldn’t work it out. It’s disappointing because they couldn’t.”

Doug Houge

County Commissioner Doug Houge — who represents the area at issue and serves as a member of the rec area’s citizen advisory council — said in the wake of the committee’s dissolution, he’s trying to shift the focus for the ATV club toward working with the state directly on its preferred route or getting behind the one favored by biking advocates.

Route A is a northerly route using county highways 30 and 34, and although it would enter a portion of the rec area, it avoided what many described as its busiest corridor. Still, a number of obstacles — literally and figuratively — stood in the way of the route, which in its current state would require ATV riders to drive on narrow road shoulders in some areas to avoid steep ditches and wetlands. A purpose-built trail appears to be the only option there, but extensive engineering and construction work would likely carry a hefty price tag.

“The bike group, in their selfish ways, are willing to sit down and help write grants and stuff for the Route A that goes around the county roads,” Houge said Tuesday. “I tried to convince (ATV club president) Ken (Irish) to jump on that bandwagon because it could work. It’s a money issue, but if they’re willing to help write grants and stuff, maybe it’s doable.”

A map showing the routes under consideration for an ATV trail near the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area
A map shows the three routes that were 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

Houge said the county isn’t in the business of preparing trail applications itself. With the DNR previously stating its opposition to the route the club preferred, there likely wouldn’t be much appetite for renewing the proposal without something changing.

“In this case, I told them, you better start at the state of Minnesota because that’s your hurdle to get through. And if that happens, then we’ll jump back on board with the connections,” Houge said. “ … The safe route committee didn’t produce an end result. It’s two totally separate groups with different thoughts, and you know, power to both of them. But the last thing I want to do is try to push something through now with the county. I’m just not going to do that.”

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

Some of those involved in the exercise to recommend a route said they were unaware of the finality of the county’s position. Safe route committee member Chuck Carlson, vice president of the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail Association, said Wednesday that based on discussions at the final meeting in October, county officials would consider the next steps. That was the last he knew, he said.

“I guess I was a little disappointed that as a committee person who put in seven months of time, we weren’t, like, sent a follow-up email just letting us know what the status was and what was happening,” Carlson said.


Reached earlier in December, Irish reacted with surprise upon hearing the path to a safe route had come to an end. Irish said Tuesday the matter will be discussed at the ATV club’s next meeting in January or February.

people sit at a table and listen with audience members in the background
Committee members Joe Bednarcyk, left, Tim Sink and Jeff Midthun 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

“We certainly want to see it move forward,” he said by phone. “I mean, we’ve certainly put much time into this thing and stuff, and a decision will end up out of our hands for what’s going to happen with it. … The club, the county, the DNR are going to have to work together to find a solution, a safe route. So that’s what I see as the future of this process. It would be, you know — if the thing just got dropped, it’s like, well, that was a whole lot of effort for nothing.”

Irish said without more input from club members and county and state officials, he couldn’t commit to a stance on Route A.

“The decision is still going to fall with the DNR and what their steps are going to be, and then how do you get the funding and the design of it,” Irish said. “All of that is still a ways out there yet. These things — I wish it were easier to do, but when you’re dealing with public land and trying to get public funding, it’s a long process.”

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

Carlson said although the committee ultimately ended up as an exercise in futility , he considered the results a win, given the route most opposed by biking groups did not move forward. It was disappointing as well, however, because Carlson said he fully supports the concept of a safer connection trail for ATVers. But he said he thought the process was doomed to fail from the start.

“We tried indicating to the county before they even spent $30,000 on this process that they were going to come against an extreme amount of opposition against going through the rec area. They didn’t seem to think that was true,” Carlson said. “ … The unfortunate side effect is that it really did put a wedge in the community for those against, those for it. And it just kind of keeps dredging up those old feelings that people have still about the way the rec area was established back in 1995. … I wish we could have avoided that.”

Gary Griffin, Crow Wing County Land Services supervisor
Gary Griffin, Crow Wing County Land Services director

Crow Wing County Land Services Director Gary Griffin said the passion surrounding the issue wasn’t a surprise, hence the special process. He said he felt really good about how the county approached the conversation.

“I think that people should recognize … that an independent facilitator that had zero skin in the game looked very objectively and brought people in from our community to try to have a discussion and figure out a problem,” Griffin said Tuesday. “What happened was, they couldn’t agree, you know. But at least we gave it our best shot.”


Irish noted the club has plenty on its plate beyond the route discussion. An annual charity ride and regular safety trainings are always part of the docket, but a planned 12.5-mile expansion of the Miller Black Bear Trail system is also set to kick off in the middle of 2023. And recently, Minnesota Power and Great River Energy initiated talks with Crow Wing County about a possible power substation connection in the same vicinity, part of the Northland Reliability Project . Houge said the tax-forfeited lands under consideration for the building project include portions of the ATV trail system, and what this means is unclear.

“We have had initial conversations with Crow Wing County and plan to continue conversations with community leaders and residents to gather insights on the potential location of a new substation to minimize impacts,” wrote Amy Rutledge, manager of corporate communications for Minnesota Power, in an email.

The proposed 150-mile transmission line from northern Minnesota to Becker would seek to increase electrical grid reliability, according to Rutledge. She said in January, the power companies will begin inviting community leaders and residents to a series of open houses to learn more about the project, review maps and share input.

“It’s at a stalemate, you know, and it’s like, we’re going to have to pick these conversations up again,” Irish said. “And I know our club’s going to be busy.”

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, 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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