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Border-spanning adventure trail in the works for northern Minnesota

Aug 07, 2017 07:50AM ● By Editor
Ron Potter with the National Off Highway Vehicle Conservation Council drives down a forest trail northwest of Bemidji. Photo from Dan Gunderson | MPR News

By Dan Gunderson - Minnesota Public Radio - August 2, 2017

If you like bumpy, dusty, winding roads, you'll love the new border-to-border trail in the works across northern Minnesota.

The adventure touring trail could be open late next summer, linking little used back roads and forest trails to take motorists on an off-the-beaten-path trek across the state. 

However, some local officials are less than enthusiastic, worried about increased road repair costs and law enforcement needs created by more traffic.

The trail will start at Grand Portage at the tip of the Arrowhead region and end at the North Dakota border somewhere in far northwest Minnesota. Along the way, it will pass through deep forests, past lakes and rivers and across prairie and farmland. A canopy of trees overhead shade the road as Ron Potter turns onto a narrow cut through the forest northwest of Bemidji. This road was built for logging, perhaps decades ago and it's bumpy with occasional muddy spots. 

"Definitely looks like it's minimum maintenance. They maintain it when they need to for timber harvest reasons," said Potter, as his four-wheel-drive Jeep jounced over ruts and squished through muddy spots. 

Potter is a retired Department of Natural Resources trails employee who's now a consultant for the National Off Highway Vehicle Conservation Council. The DNR contracted with the off-highway vehicle council and the Minnesota Four Wheel Drive Association to manage the project.

In 2015, the Legislature authorized using registration feeds and gas tax from off road vehicles for trail development. 

Potter was "ground truthing" one recent day, which entails driving roads that look like a potential trail segment on a map. 

He turns onto a trail that's just two wheel tracks with tall grass between, a road that hasn't seen tires in some time. But that's just what Potter is looking for. 

"This would be ideal. It would be nice if we could have the entire adventure trail something like this," said Potter.

But a couple of miles down the trail there's a T in the road. Potter studies a map to decide which way to turn. In the end, he decides to turn around and head back the way he came. 

"It's not going to get us where we want to. The one dead ends over here on a lake and the other one looks like it headed into a large wetland," Potter said. "Planning from the office with a map is one thing. But getting out on the ground and seeing what's going to work is totally different."

Potter is one of three people driving back roads this summer to map a draft route for the trail. On a good day, he said, he can map 30 to 40 miles of trail. He expects the winding route to total between 400 and 500 miles when completed. 

As they work to link this maze of backroads across the state, the trail designers are looking to also connect interesting sites and campgrounds that aren't as busy as state parks. 

"We're focusing more on county parks, city parks," Potter said. "There's some forest campgrounds that are underutilized."

The traffic the trail will bring to remote areas will provide a boost to the northern Minnesota tourism economy, Potter said. But some county and township officials worry it will cost them money. 

Long Lost Lake township in Clearwater County is one of a few townships in the area on record opposing the trail. 

Town board chairman Greg Scherzer questions the economic impact theory. He said there just aren't many places to spend money in remote areas.

"That economic stuff, it's meaningless to us. As far as I'm concerned, it's an empty promise," he said. 

Township officials are more concerned about what increased traffic on a designated trail will do to already stretched road maintenance budgets. 

"We already have a hard enough time with four-wheelers. Four wheelers tear our roads up," said Scherzer. "There's no doubt there would be extra maintenance and we don't have extra money to clean up extra stuff."

Other local officials raised concerns about the cost of monitoring traffic and enforcing laws on the trail, but said they're withholding judgment until they know more about the project. Several said they felt out of the loop on the project. 

More information will be provided to local officials soon, according to DNR Off Highway Vehicle program consultant Mary Straka.

She said the trail route needs to be better defined before local officials weigh in. "We'll be moving into a phase where we will be in closer communication with the counties and we'll be working with the county staff to better inform their boards," Straka said.

The goal is to align the trail in areas where local officials are supportive, said Straka.

Potter said off-road vehicle clubs across the state will be enlisted to help care for the trail, and he hopes some grant-in-aid funds will be available to help local governments as well. 

The DNR envisions the trail as a slow speed route for highway licensed cars and trucks, not a test course for high powered trucks with big tires ripping up the ground. 

"This is more for, you know, a family that wants to spend the weekend or a week out touring the backroads of northern Minnesota, doing some camping, seeing the sights," said Potter.

A phase two plan to build several challenge loops off the trail to attract serious off road aficionados won't happen for several years, Potter said.

The draft trail route will be finalized later this fall. Then local officials will have a chance to offer input before the route is finalized early next summer.

You can listen to an audio version of this report on MPR by following this link:

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