A citizen-led committee met with State Sen. Paul Utke (R-Park Rapids) Monday, seeking his support for a 24-mile, multiple-purpose trail connecting Itasca State Park with the Heartland Trail.

When the Minnesota Legislature meets in February 2020, Utke agreed to sponsor a $10-million state bonding request for the first two phases of construction.

Local support

For a decade, the committee has been actively developing a plan for the Itasca-Heartland spur, with input from a variety of stakeholders, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staff, Hubbard County Land Management staff, two county commissioners and trail users, such as hunters, snowmobilers and bicyclists.

The preferred route primarily crosses state or county public forestland and county highway right-of-way. The need for purchasing easements across private land will be minimal.

Committee member Vic Olson told Utke the project has the support of Park Rapids, Nevis and Akeley city councils, chambers of commerce, snowmobiling clubs, bike clubs and Hubbard County.

Park Rapids City Planner Andrew Mack asked if it the Park Rapids City Council should renew its pledge of support.

The most important thing, Utke said, is documenting local contributions. “You can put a value on county lands or anything with actual dollar values. Money isn’t exchanging hands, but the county is participating and the city is participating. I think that means a lot more,” he said, adding legislators “want to see what is the local investment.”

County commissioner Char Christenson said she, County Land Commissioner Chip Lohmeier and County Auditor Kay Rave can gather the land value information.

Kent Skaar, senior project manager for the DNR Parks and Trails Division, suggested that his department also draft a joint powers agreement between the DNR and Hubbard County to formally establish a relationship for this project.

Three phases

Olson pointed out that the DNR considers the Itasca-Heartland extension a “destination trail.”

“That means it isn’t just a project that’s good for the locals. It’s a project that has state and regional significance,” he said.

People specifically come to Itasca State Park to ride their bikes, he continued, with statistics showing that two-thirds of riders are from outside the area.

The committee recommends proceeding in three phases: 1) construction of the spur from the Itasca State Park contact station to U.S. Hwy. 71; 2) a tunnel under Hwy. 71 and continuing the trail to Emmaville, and 3) extending the trail from Emmaville to the Heartland Trail connection and building a new trailhead access on County 4.

“It’s money for the first two phases that we’d like to see,” Olson said, which is currently estimated at $10 million. “That needs to be refined as the engineering study becomes more specific.”

A DNR specialist is finishing a preliminary engineering study of the approximately 17-mile corridor between the state park and Emmaville.

Based on similar projects, Skaar estimates construction costs will be about $650,000 per mile. He anticipates the required tunnel will cost between $800,000 and $1 million.

Natural and cultural resource investigations must be completed prior to permitting and construction, along with an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW).

Skaar explained that all state trail corridors are developed to the same specifications, so families can be comfortable knowing that they’ll encounter the same experience throughout Minnesota. “For all intents and purposes, we’re building paved, multi-use trails for a 5-year-old on a bicycle,” he said.

Across the state, Skaar said trails are always phased construction projects. There is an existing grant-in-aid snowmobile trail on the proposed Itasca-Heartland route. “The tunnel on Hwy. 71, standing by itself, would create an immediate safety opportunity for snowmobilers,” he said, and the new trail within Itasca would also see immediate use.

Olson said that State Rep. John Percell (DFL-Bemidji) agreed to sponsor the spur’s bonding bill in the Minnesota House. He expects State Representatives Alice Hausman and Leon Lillie will back it. “I hope Rep. (Matt) Grossell will sign on,” Olson said, but he doubted that State Rep. Steve Green would.

Opposition

“Do we have agreement from all parties?” Utke asked, noting he has received more than one phone call about safety concerns.

Ron Norenberg, a committee member, said there had been some opposition from hunters who think bikers will pass through the tax-forfeited lands during deer-hunting season.

Utke agreed biking was highly unlikely in November and the two can coexist.

Tim Williamson, with DNR Parks and Trails regional office in Bemidji, pointed out that youth hunts are held in state parks and signs alert bicyclists/hikers that those activities are happening.

Butch De La Hunt, president/CEO of the Park Rapids Chamber of Commerce, said there is hiking along the North Country Trail as well, so safety concerns are “a fairly weak argument” when there are already multiple uses of public lands occuring.

Mack said it’s more likely that snowmobilers will use the spur in early November.

Deane Johnson noted that all concerns were heard and addressed at prior committee meetings, with route adjustments made to accommodate any potential issues.

Olson said some have argued that families will not use the spur because 12 to 14 miles of it will run through an isolated area. “For bikers, that’s a dream come true. Bike trails that are built with a sense of being remote and away from civilization are probably the most prized sections of any bike trail in the state,” he said.

Economic benefits

Not only will the spur become a destination for bicyclists, but “it’s also going to be really unique for the park users, who now won’t just have the very busy bike trail and Wilderness Drive that is also used by motorists,” Olson said. “This will become a one-day trip where you ride down to Park Rapids or Dorset, then come back up. If we get just 5 percent of park visitors to use the trail that will double Heartland Trail use.”

Olson remarked that Itasca State Park recently refurbished its bike trail due to its popularity.

Until he joined the chamber, De La Hunt said he didn’t realize how many tourists come to the Park Rapids area specifically for biking. “It opened my eyes,” he said. “I see the importance of it. It is a huge economic impact for our community.”

Itasca State Park receives 550,000 visitors each year, De La Hunt said, so even if a fraction of them use the spur, it will make an economic difference.

Utke asked for figures about how many Itasca visitors bring their bikes. DNR staff said they would provide those numbers.

Mack said bicyclists using other established, scenic bike trails are also drawn to this area.

Olson said 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.

Utke agreed Hwy. 71 was not a good bike route, with its heavy truck traffic.

For those who simply want the exercise, Olson said there are no decent roads to bike along. “That’s why these trails become very popular.”

Walkers enjoy the Heartland Trail in the mornings, he added, and real estate listings near the trail always mention it as a selling point.

Skaar remarked that the Gitchi-Gami State Trail is being incrementally built along the North Shore of Lake Superior. The DNR saw “the most dramatic change” at Gooseberry State Park, where there are about 30-35 contiguous miles of trail to Silver Bay. Skaar said Gooseberry “changed almost overnight” into a biking destination.

“Although there are a number of destinations for folks that provide opportunities – Split Rock Lighthouse, etc. – it went from being a portion of the use in our campgrounds to the predominant use in the campgrounds,” he said, adding the first campsites to sell out are those that abut the trail.

Utke said that would be good data to include with Itasca-Heartland Spur bill to justify the bonding.

De La Hunt pointed out that biking events, like the Headwaters 100 and Bike MS Tram, “put heads in beds.” If this spur is built, “it would be a fantastic route for a major biking event,” he said.

What’s next?

Utke said a Senate capital investments committee will be visiting the area in early October. Itasca-Heartland Spur committee members can make their initial pitch and provide a basic plan for the trail extension. Cost estimates, a master plan and bonding bill language will be ready before the Legislature goes back into session on Feb. 11, 2020.