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Itasca-Heartland Connection Trail receives $2M in bonding

The first phase of the project will build a trail from the Itasca State Park contact station, a tunnel under U.S. Hwy 71 and a 2-mile trail that connects with an existing snowmobile trail.

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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)

In a surprising turn of events, the Itasca-Heartland Connection Trail got a green light from the state.

After more than a decade of efforts to secure funding for a multi-purpose, paved trail connecting Itasca State Park and the Heartland Trail, the Minnesota Legislature included $2 million in its recent bonding bill for the trail spur.

A citizens-led committee had asked for a $3.8 million appropriation to complete the first phase of the project. Hopes of receiving the request were considered slim in June, after a bonding bill failed to pass during the regular legislative session.

After announcing to committee members that $2 million was in the final bonding bill, State Sen. Paul Utke (R-Park Rapids) said the rest of the funding – $1.8 million – will come from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

"The DNR has said they will add the balance to get the tunnel and trail into the park completed in phase one," Utke said. "Good luck and let the project begin!"

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The first phase of the project involves building a 1.75-mile trail from the Itasca State Park contact station to U.S. Hwy. 71, a tunnel under the highway with a retaining wall and a 1.96-mile trail east of the tunnel toward Emmaville, where it would connect with an existing snowmobile trail.

The committee has been actively developing a plan for the Itasca-Heartland Connection, with input from a variety of stakeholders, DNR staff, Hubbard County Land Management Department staff, two county commissioners and trail users, such as hunters, snowmobilers and bicyclists.

“With everything that it happening in the country and state now, it is indeed a pleasure and honor this state trail will provide a recreational connection to Itasca State Park and the Heartland Trail for all county residents and visitors from around the world to enjoy,” said Eric Haugland, chairperson of the citizen committee. “We would like to thank Sen. Paul Utke for his support as well as Rep. John Persell and the Hubbard County commissioners, specifically Char Christenson and Tom Krueger who have shown special interest in the trail, and for Hubbard County Land Commissioner Chip Lohmeier for his efforts since the start on discussion of a trail.”

Legislators who sponsored the Itasca-Heartland Connection bonding bill included Sen. Utke and Sen. Justin Eichorn (R-Grand Rapids) and Rep. Persell (DFL-Bemidji), Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul) and Rep. Leon Lillie (DFL-North St. Paul).

In coordination with the committee, the DNR conducted preliminary engineering work to determine a trail corridor and cost estimates.

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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)

Tunnel construction accounts for nearly half of the $3.8 million cost, but a handout for legislators notes this initial phase “will give the park a scenic and secluded out-and-back trail for cyclists that complements the currently busy in-park trail, while also giving snowmobilers a welcomed safe route under Hwy. 71 when going to and from the park's snowmobile trails.”

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One of the primary reasons for the new trail is that the current bike route between Itasca and Park Rapids to Itasca, along a shoulder of U.S. Hwy. 71, is considered dangerous due to the high traffic levels and the narrow shoulders with rumble strips.

When funds are available, the second phase of trail construction will continue 13 miles east to Emmaville on county land. The third phase will go south eight miles from Emmaville on a county road right-of-way to the intersection with the Heartland Trail, where a trailhead would be constructed.

State legislators also approved $2 million in bonding for another new section of the Heartland Trail from Detroit Lakes to Frazee that has been under construction.

Shannon Geisen is editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise.
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