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Potential ATV route through Cuyuna state rec area under scrutiny

Both sides say common ground exists and they support safer rides for all users, motorized and non-motorized. How to get there, however, remains an issue of intense debate.

Aerial photo of lakes and forest
In an aerial photo taken with a drone in October 2018, the sunny weather accentuated the leaf color in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. In the background, the water towers of Ironton and Crosby are visible.
Jim Stafford / Brainerd Dispatch file video
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BRAINERD — Crow Wing County officials expected controversy, and controversy is what they’re getting.

At issue is whether an all-terrain vehicle trail should be allowed to dip into 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. The effort, pursued by the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders ATV club, seeks to establish a link between the Miller Black Bear Trail to the cities of Crosby and Ironton along with nearby state ATV trails.

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 all 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 would have their own positive economic impact in the cities they’d be able to visit more readily.

Both sides say common ground exists and they support safer rides for all users, motorized and non-motorized. How to get there, however, remains an issue of intense debate.

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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 an ad hoc committee. The Safe Route Connection Project Committee consists of 13 members representing a variety of stakeholders. Members were tasked with brainstorming potential routes and are expected to make a recommendation to the county’s Natural Resources Advisory Committee later this fall. Meeting monthly since May , the group has narrowed its options to three routes, with the one drawing the most ire remaining on the table.

A lengthy Sept. 13 Facebook post from the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew asking followers to speak out against the proposed route drew impassioned responses from supporters and detractors alike — 733 comments, 410 reactions and 226 shares as of Friday afternoon, Sept. 23. Several of those shares and comments originated from those in favor of the rec area route, including local club members spreading their own message through a variety of ATV-friendly Facebook pages.

“We believe these (motorized and silent sport) uses are not compatible in the same CCSRA space. We also believe these uses (motorized and silent sport) are not socially sustainable in the same CCSRA space,” the post states. “We as mountain bicyclists support the local ATV club in gaining an approved route to the City of Ironton from their trail systems. We DO NOT support that route going through the CCSRA. The CCSRA stands as a sanctuary of safety for all silent sport users and uses.”

While the committee’s recommendation is just that — a recommendation, subject to a 30-day public comment period and Crow Wing County Board approval, not to mention potential legislative or DNR intervention should the recreation area be affected — those on both sides of the issue are encouraging advocacy ahead of the next meeting set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27, in the Crow Wing County Land Services Building.

Silent sanctuary

The Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area officially came under state management in 1993 after nearly a decade of discussion over the area’s future post-iron mining era. A series of public meetings between 1993 and 1995 resulted in the DNR’s management plan for the first state recreation area created in Minnesota. That management plan summarized advisory committee conversations about whether ATV trails should be included, noting ATV use was an issue in the area for years.

“With the support of the Mineland Area Joint Powers Board, all individual local units of government in the Cuyuna area passed ordinances prohibiting ATV use in the recreation area,” the plan states. “ … The disadvantages of providing this use far outweighed the advantages. … A regional facility analysis also shows approximately 200 miles of public ATV trail within 50 miles of the Cuyuna area.”

Twenty-seven years later, Crow Wing County alone lists nearly 190 miles of designated trails, not including county-managed forestlands on which ATV use is allowed anywhere (with rare exceptions) and trail systems on state property.

During practice, the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Biking Team rides over a wooden obstacle on the trail Wednesday, Sept. 5, at the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area Mountain Bike Skills Area. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery
During practice, the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Biking Team rides over a wooden obstacle on the trail in September 2018 at the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area Mountain Bike Skills Area.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

The area now under consideration for the ATV trail includes the Miner’s Mountain Rally Center in the South Mahnomen Unit along with the paved Cuyuna Lakes State Trail and the Galloping Goose mountain bike trail. In other words, it’s the most heavily trafficked corridor of the recreation area, including young families and inexperienced riders, those opposed to this potential route say.

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“If that were to be impacted — which it would be by that route — people are going to vote with their feet and they’re not going to come to Cuyuna,” said Doug Arndt, a Crosby business owner and member of the Cuyuna Regional Economic Council, during a phone interview Thursday. “It would be too noisy, too dusty, and that goes without even getting to the degradation of the quality of the lakes through the runoff that would be created and the noise. … And most importantly, the risk and the safety of the people that are walking and biking.”

Arndt said the Cuyuna Regional Economic Council is a nonprofit business advocacy organization formed in direct response to the trail issue, representing 15 of the 28 businesses opened in the last decade benefiting from the growth of Cuyuna Country into an internationally recognized mountain biking destination. As for his own business ventures in downtown Crosby, Arndt wrote in a February letter to the DNR that if he’d known motorized use in the rec area might be allowed, he wouldn’t have invested in the first place.

0902crosby-cuyuna-mural.jpg
A mural on a brick building in Ironton highlights what the Cuyuna Lakes area has to offer in mountain biking on its red earth.
Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

Chuck Carlson, a member of the Safe Route Connection Project Committee who serves as vice president of the Cuyuna Lakes Trail Association, said Cuyuna Country is known as a family-friendly destination when compared to other mountain bike trail systems. He said while proponents of the route at issue hold up other locations with shared use between motorized and non-motorized as comparable, those sites typically draw far fewer visitors and feature more difficult trail sections not appropriate for youth riders.

“We can make a safe route using other options. There are other options that will work,” Carlson said during a Thursday phone interview. “They will take a little bit more work. The snowmobile trail that they want to use through the rec area is already there, and they’ve said it’s already there, it would be the easiest option. Yes, but it’s not the best option in our mind.”

Carlson said he fully supports the ATV club’s goal of achieving a safe connector trail and he thinks that can be achieved by one of the other proposed routes along the north side of the rec area. This route includes sections of county highways 34 and 30 and in its current state, would require ATV riders to travel on the road surface at times and in ditches at others. While the route would also include a trail crossing between ATVs and mountain bikes in one spot and the paved trail in another, Carlson noted cyclists and other users are already alert for vehicle traffic there because of the county highway.

Logan Carpenter, 2 (left), along with his brother Gavin Carpenter, 5, and parents Rachel and Mike Carpenter ride alongside Huntington-Feigh Mine Lake in Miner's Mountain Rally Center within the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Crosby. Plans to expand Cuyuna's single track trail system include diversifying the trails to provide more options for mountain bike riders of all ages and skill levels.(Photo by Aaron W. Hautala)
Logan Carpenter, 2, along with his brother Gavin Carpenter, 5, and parents Rachel and Mike Carpenter ride alongside Huntington-Feigh Mine Lake in Miner's Mountain Rally Center within the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Crosby.
Contributed / Aaron W. Hautala

“I want to make sure that people don’t just think that we’re advocating for, ‘Just go drive in the ditch, it’ll be safer,’” Carlson said. “I would like to see a better ATV experience created for them, where there’s a purpose-built trail and it’s designed for safety and it’s designed for the rider experience.”

Carlson said one thing about the county process over which he’s frustrated is a lack of communication with landowners in the area, particularly those who live or own property along the routes under consideration. He said in his work with the trail association, which is in the process of seeking expansion of the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail between Riverton and Brainerd, talking to affected property owners made a big difference in garnering support for the project.

“They want to put these routes out for public comment after this next meeting, and yet, nobody has officially been contacted as a landowner to say, ‘Do you know that this is happening, that this process is happening and that we’re considering a route in front of your house?’” Carlson said. “People are hearing about this through the grapevine. … They said, ‘This kind of hit us by surprise, we didn’t know that this was going on.’”

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Andy Larson, who owns property on County Road 128 along a third proposed route, said he and his wife Ashley are building their future home bit by bit in the area, attracted by the peace and quiet, mountain biking opportunities and trout fishing in the mine pit lakes. He said he’d never heard from the county or the ATV club about the potential for a trail near his land and found out on his own.

“Since this is being proposed as an ‘ATV Safe Route,’ I want to ask the question, ‘What is safe?’” Larson wrote in an email. “We all understand what is being proposed for the benefit of ATV riders, but is it safe for the Cuyuna State Recreation Area? Is it safe for the people who live near it? Is it safe for the environment? Is it safe for the local economy?”

ATV club wants compromise

Ken Irish, president of the Cuyuna Iron Range Riders, said repeatedly during a Friday phone interview the club is not trying to take over the rec area. Instead, the route skirts the southern edge, using the snowmobile trail and an old gravel road. He said of the three routes under consideration, this one is the safest for ATV riders and doesn’t pose the safety risk to cyclists, walkers and others that those opposed are leading people to believe.

“It’s actually the shortest distance and by far, we feel the safer, because putting us out in the road right of way or the ditches and stuff is not safe for our riders, either,” Irish said. “ … I think the group should … take a tour group around the outside and look at the issues and the hazards around the outside of the rec area. It would be good for the committee on both sides to see that. … We’re only asking for 15 to 20 feet on the edge of the property.”

A woman and boy ride an ATV on a trail with a line of other ATVS in the background
All-terrain vehicles head out to a Mississippi River overlook in 2015 after the grand opening of the Miller-Black Bear Trail, a designated multi-use trail near Trommald.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

Irish acknowledged the trail would also run parallel to rec area trails for about 2 miles as well, but said the club is willing to take several mitigation measures, including installing a split rail fence between motorized and non-motorized trails and speed limit and noise reduction area signs. Calcium chloride can be used to minimize dust, Irish added.

“The bike group doesn’t want to agree to any of those kind of conditions. So we’re going to follow the process and see where it ultimately goes,” Irish said. “I guess that we thought we could find common ground and work with people. They’re adamantly against anything that’s within the borders of the rec area.”

As for the route to the north, Irish noted it also runs through the rec area and features sharp ditches and narrow road shoulders. A recent charity ride utilized a portion of the route, but Irish said police and fire department personnel were present to ensure the safety of ATVers. He doesn’t believe a dedicated trail would work there given some geographic constraints.

ATV riders travel the Spider Lake Trail.Photo courtesy Minnesota DNR
ATV riders travel the Spider Lake Trail in central Minnesota.
Contributed / Minnesota DNR

“There’s 600 cars a day that travel County Road 30 … and so I think you’re going to mix a whole other trail into an area that’s pretty busy,” Irish said.

Irish agreed with the need for better communication with nearby land owners, but he said he wishes business owners would have listened to the club’s perspective before aligning with those opposed to the route.

“They’ve only heard from the other side, and I wish they would have reached back to us and stuff instead of sending their letters off,” Irish said. “ … We’d like to access the city of Ironton and Crosby for food and gas. We certainly would bring economic benefit and additional tourism revenue to the community and stuff. And I know riders would stay longer if they have that direct access from a trail. … I’m hoping these businesses wil reconsider. We’d like to get into town to eat burgers and pizzas, too.”

He said club members and cyclists have a lot in common and many people enjoy both activities.

“I feel that between the non-motorized and the motorized people, we do have much in common with those people,” Irish said. “We’re white collar, blue collar. People are parents, grandparents, retired people. We’re people that live in the area, some from outside the area. We both enjoy the trails.”

If the club’s preferred route is selected, Irish said it will ultimately come down to what state officials in St. Paul have to say.

“Hopefully, by some time next year, we’ll have a decision,” Irish said. “ … And St. Paul hopefully will make a favorable decision that works for everybody, you know. It really is going to rest with them down there in St. Paul and the decisions they make. We’ll accept whatever the outcome is.”

If you go

What: Safe Route Connection Project Committee meeting.

When: 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27.

Where: Crow Wing County Land Services Building, Meeting Rooms 1 and 2, 322 Laurel St., Brainerd.

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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