Border to Border Trail Planning Session held in Cook County.
Feb 23, 2018 09:10AM
By Brian Larsen from the Cook County News Herald - February 23, 2018
An evening meeting to gather further public input about a proposed 400-mile border-to-border backcountry scenic byway for licensed all-wheel/ four-wheel drive vehicles was held in the high school cafeteria on Tuesday, Feb. 20.
About 30 people attended the information gathering session where the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sought feedback about Cook County back roads that would potentially connect to others that meander through Lake, St. Louis, Itasca, Beltrami, Clearwater, Polk, Red Lake, Pennington, Marshall and Kittson counties.
Maps were spread across cafeteria tables depicting the current proposed route. The audience was encouraged to study those maps and let the DNR know what was missed, what wasn’t thought of, and, is there a better road to use?
The meeting was hosted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, off-road vehicle (ORV) staff led by Mary Straka, OHV Program Consultant/Parks and Trails Division.
As it stands now, the B2B route will run through the northern third of the state from North Dakota to the shores of Lake Superior in Cook County.
Eight meetings in all are being held to collect information that will be incorporated into a draft trail design, which when completed will also receive public input.
In 2015, said Straka, the state Legislature directed the DNR to oversee the project and to work in conjunction with the Minnesota Four-Wheel Drive Association to discuss off-road vehicle touring routes and other issues related to off-road vehicle activities.
First authorized in 1984, Minnesota’s OHV trails assistance is a cost-share program intended to help develop and maintain trails for use by all-terrain vehicles, off-highway motorcycles, and off-road vehicles.
Dubbed the OHV grant-in-aid program, it helps to establish and sustain recreational trails at the initiative of clubs and other organizations, with the support and participation of local government sponsors.
Organizations can apply for grant-in-aid funds through counties, cities or townships.
Straka said all aspects of OHV trail development and maintenance are eligible for funding, including project administration, site planning, trail improvements, land acquisition for trail development, and trail maintenance. Proposals with a focus on maintaining or improving existing trails and trail systems will be assigned a higher priority, but as one member of the audience pointed out, with changing government personnel, there is no guarantee funds will be allocated to this project.
To gain more expertise, the DNR hired the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council (NOHVCC) to manage the B2B trail project with the cooperation of the Minnesota 4-Wheel Drive Association (MN4WDA).
When asked how the B2B route will be paid for, Straka said funding would be taken from the Off- Road Vehicle account in the DNR’s fund. Revenues from this fund come from registrations and non-refunded fuel from off-road vehicle owners. The state Legislature also dedicated $150,000 toward trail planning.
Several people inquired about maintenance of roads that will undoubtedly see more use than they now do, and Straka replied that the DNR was working with the MN4WDA on developing a maintenance account for B2B.
Signage will be paid for by the DNR. One design being looked at is a small sign in the shape of the state of Minnesota, Straka said. The sign(s) would include route numbers or other indicators showing where a driver was as he traveled.
Other activities related to being part of the touring route might be funded, said Straka, but they would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Straka said the route would be designed for vehicles that are “typically lower gear, all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, high clearance. We are looking for a scenic adventure trail.”
ORVs are defined legally as motorized recreational vehicles weighing over 2,000 pounds capable of cross-country travel on natural terrain. Included are jeeps or light truck with wheels that are 65 inches from outer wheel rim to the outer wheel rim. Snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), off-highway motorcycles (OHMs), motorcycles, watercraft or aircraft, are not considered ORVs, she added.
Karen Umphress, NOHVCC IT and project manager, impressed upon the audience that the B2B trail, “is for highway licensed vehicles on highway-licensed vehicle route, so it’s not creating any new system or trail that highway-licensed vehicles cannot already drive on.”
Straka added the listening session was specifically about where the route should or should not go and was not a debate about whether or not the B2B path should exist because it was legislatively mandated.
Because the roads in the B2B corridor are now in use, existing speed limits would not be altered. However, the ideal route, noted Straka, would be rugged, unpaved, low-maintenance roads, with some bumps and obstacles that would be navigable, but encourage slower speeds.
Because these roads are only minimally maintained, at times, they wouldn’t be navigatable. OHV drivers would have to follow the rules and not use parts of the B2B route affected by trail repairs, spring thaws, torrential rains, logging or public safety concerns.
When asked if an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would be issued, Straka replied the DNR’s Environmental Quality Board would first evaluate the route to see if an EAW is required. If the EAW indicated more review was needed, it could lead to an EIS, she said.
The intent is to put B2B trail in the Grant-in-Aid system, a cost-share program to facilitate development and maintenance of trails. The DNR will partner with the Forest Service, counties, townships, and clubs to maintain the route. Local trail ambassadors would receive training on terrestrial invasive species, monitor safety, assist conservation officers and even pick up litter, among other things.
As Straka answered questions along with some of the DNR staff on hand, she gathered the sheets of paper people had left with comments to take back with her.
How much planning is needed before a route is finally finished? she was asked.
Straka smiled. “This is still in the early stages. The EAW could take up to a year, and maybe longer. If that EAW indicates that an environmental statement will have to be done, well, that will take even more time.”
In other words, if the off-road trail is meant to be a slow ride, the process to make it so won’t be any faster.