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Engineering study slated for Heartland Trail Spur

The Heartland Trail Spur, if funded, would connect bikers, hikers and snowmobilers on a 24-mile jaunt from CSAH 4 to Itasca State Park. (Map courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

Hubbard County commissioners heard an update on the proposed Heartland Trail Spur to Itasca State Park last week.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staff will conduct a preliminary engineering study this spring/summer of the preferred route and develop an estimated cost, with the goal of bringing the proposal to state elected officials and seeking funding during the Legislature's bonding year in 2020, according to Tim Williamson. He works in the DNR Parks and Trails regional office in Bemidij.

Eric Haugland, a Park Rapids resident, is on the citizens-led Heartland Spur committee, which includes a variety of stakeholders, DNR staff, two county commissioners and trail users.

"In 10th grade, in 1975, I was in the audience for a government class. I remember there was someone, like we are now, speaking for a bike trail to Itasca. And now this steering committee has been going on for about 10 years now," Haugland told the county board.

The current bike route from Park Rapids to Itasca, along U.S. Hwy. 71, is considered dangerous due to the high traffic levels and narrow shoulders with rumble strips.

The reason for the spur, Haugland said, is "to have a safe ride up to Itasca and possibly have a scenic ride, too."

Not only that, but the spur is expected to be an economic driver. It will complete a circular route that includes the Paul Bunyan State Trail and the Mi-Gi-Zi Trail. It connects the major tourism areas of Park Rapids, Itasca State Park, Bemidij, Cass Lake, Walker and the dozen smaller communities, according to the 2019 spur proposal.

The Heartland Trail Spur is considered a "destination trail" in the DNR's latest system management plan, which means that this proposed trail is expected to get the highest level of use and the highest investment.

The extension would begin where the existing trail crosses CSAH 4, then proceed north through Emmaville toward Itasca State Park's south entrance station.

The spur primarily crosses state or county public forestland and county highway right-of-way, Williamson noted, so the need for purchasing easements across private land or acquiring land is "very low for a project of this size. This is a combination of working with the county, working with the state to find a scenic route as well as a safe route and one that is rather practical as well."

County commissioner David De La Hunt asked if the spur uses any existing trails.

"Snowmobile trails," Williamson said, "but, for the most part, this will be a new paved trail."

The spur would be a state grant-in-aid trail in the winter, Williamson said, so would be wide enough for a groomer.

If funded by a Legislature appropriation or state capital investment monies, the Heartland Trail Spur would likely be built in segments, Williamson continued. Construction would begin in Itasca State Park. The planned extension has already been approved as an amendment to the park's management plan and has the full support of the park manager and DNR Division of Parks and Trails.

"They did the plan amendment four years ago," he said. "One of the biggest pieces that we'd have to do on this whole trail is something across Hwy. 71. Our engineers are currently looking at, but it looks most likely that it will be a tunnel."

The proposed trailhead is a five-acre parcel for sale at the intersection of existing Heartland Trail and CSAH 4. This would offer safe access along a township road, with parking and other amenities for existing trail users as well. Current users are often parking at an unsafe location along Hubbard County 4, so this addition would yield an immediate benefit, according to the Heartland Spur proposal.

County commissioner Dan Stacey asked if there was opposition.

Williamson said that specific concerns have been addressed through the citizens committee.

The engineering study will confirm the preferred route, which has been chosen by a citizen-led task force, based on slope, wetlands, public/private land, scenic value, multiple uses and other factors, before construction costs can be determined, Williamson said.

"We would be looking for, at some point, a resolution of support from the county board," he continued. "This project is wholly within Hubbard County. While it is a state trial, we built it with a partnership and your support as well."

The trail has received resolutions of support from Park Rapids, Akeley and Nevis city councils, Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission as well as local bicycle and snowmobile clubs.

County Coordinator Eric Nerness said, "I think you said previously this probably will, when complete, bring in an additional 25,000 visitors to Park Rapids, so there is significant economic benefit to our community."