But I thought of that cover story after attending the 2013 PedalMN Bike Summit this week, a two-day Minnesota state government-hosted conference involving four state agencies, several non-profits, and representatives from more than a few bicycle-related businesses.
When it comes to bicycling, Minnesota seems to be a state that works. And for state’s mountain bikers, the success of the two-year old Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trail system (CLMTBT) is the epitome of government, non-profit, and industry leaders effectively collaborating to get something done that’s been huge for our sport in the state. In short, Cuyuna rocks. (In MN mountain biking circles, the word ‘Cuyuna’ is the most commonly used short-hand for the mtb trail system in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area – CCSRA.)
Read the timeline of the creation of Cuyuna. You’ll see the names of these people, most of them more than once: Gary Sjoquist, Dan Cruser, Courtland Nelson, Mike Van Abel, and Hansi Johnson. All of them were there this week, as were others from their organizations (MORC, IMBA, DNR, QBP).
I got up to Cuyuna early on Monday morning, as it was a gorgeous autumn day and I wanted to ride every single trail in the Huntington east and west units (AKA as the Mahnomen Unit on the DNR’s map of Cuyuna). I rode some more than once, including the steep and short Screamer which I rode five times, trying to get better/faster at it with marginal success. But what fun.
For most participants, the day’s activities started shortly after lunch with “experiential workshops on bicycles in the field.” Groups gathered in the Croft Mine parking lot in Cuyuna’s Yawkey Unit. The blurb for those doing the experiential mountain bike ride:
Experience firsthand what makes the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails an IMBA-certified Ride Center. Learn about purpose-built trail design and weekly trail maintenance. See why cycling is now-year round in the Cuyuna Lakes area.
Find out how state, county and city governments have partnered with residents and the cycling industry to achieve the shared goal of becoming an international mountain biking destination. Members of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew will lead ride participants through an interactive tour within the Yawkey Unit of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area.
This bike tour is purposefully designed for cyclists of all skill levels to enjoy their time on the red dirt. Riders will be separated into advanced, intermediate and beginner categories.
Organizers set up six guided ride stops out on the trails, each staffed with someone explaining:
Purpose Built Trails and Riding
Community Connections for Economic Development
High School Mountain Bike League
Year Round Recreation
Safety and Grassroots Support
I followed the advanced group around and IMHO, it was a very cool way to show/teach a large number of people in a short period of time the important aspects of a modern mountain bike trail system and its wider impact. After the guided stops, ride leaders took their groups back out on the loop trails for more riding until everyone convened back at the parking lot for topical Q&A at various tables.
Left: Karl Erbach (Trek), John Schaubach (CLMTBC), Seth Nesselhuf (QBP)
Center: Steve Weber (DNR), Gary Sjoquist (QBP)
Right: John Gaddo (QBP), Reed Smidt (MORC)
We then gathered for socializing and dinner at Cragun’s Resort in Brainerd, where DNR Parks and Trails Director Courtland Nelson introduced the evening speaker, IMBA Executive Director Mike Van Abel. Mike and IMBA have a long history with Cuyuna (Hansi’s got a good summary in his June 2011 blog post, shortly after the park opened) so it was fun to hear some of Mike’s stories of that history. His message to the audience of 200+ participants was clear: the pursuit of IMBA’s mission (“to create, enhance and preserve great mountain biking experiences”) goes far beyond the sport and IMBA’s members. Communities and regions all over the continent are seeing that the environmental, economic, and public heath benefits of mountain biking are significant and growing.
One of Tuesday morning’s breakout sessions was dedicated to mountain biking. Mike moderated a panel consisting of IMBA’s Hansi Johnson, MORC’s Reed Smidt, and CLMBT’s Aaron Hautala.
One thing that stood out for me was Reed’s comment about MORC’s role in the state. Despite the word ‘Minnesota’ in its name, MORC has recently become more focused on mountain biking in the Twin Cities metro area, as the IMBA Chapter Program has produced many chapters throughout the state. But with 3 million residents and thousands of mountain bikers in the metro area, MORC plays an important role in producing and supplying a significant number of mountain bikers who like to travel to the mtb trail systems throughout the state and midwest region.
So my take-away from the Bike Summit: I’m damn lucky to be a resident of Minnesota, a state that works for mountain biking. And the work that others have done to get us to this point inspires me to help keep it going and do what I can to get others to join the effort.
I’m in a Duluth coffee shop as I write this. I’m going riding.
Brett was clear: the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota is backing the creation of a new paved (yes, paved) trail through the Bloomington segment, approximately 13 miles. His points, included some made in the article:
Many thousands of residents who live in nearby Bloomington and adjacent suburbs would have easy access to the trail
Trailheads are/would be near the light rail stations, making the trail more accessible to a larger number of metro-area residents
The 2013 MN Legislature has presented the City of Bloomington with both a carrot and stick to reopen the old Cedar Avenue Bridge by the spring of 2016 (see the May StarTribune article, Mall of America expansion funding has $9 million bridge to cross). This will make the new trail much more accessible to thousands of people in Dakota County.
Nearly all the land is publicly owned so the acquisition cost normally associated with a new trail is moot
A paved trail through a metro-area wildlife refuge would be a tremendous benefit for handicapped people in wheelchairs
Brett believes there’s room for two trails (paved and natural surface/mountain bike) as does the DNR apparently. But it’s not yet clear where the US Fish and Wildlife Service stands on this issue. The MN Valley Wildlife Refuge has a new director, Tim Bodeen, who started a couple weeks ago.
Brett acknowledged that the cost for ongoing maintenance of a paved trail through miles of an area that frequently floods is a significant problem, one faced by no other DNR trail in the state. As I’ve blogged (here and here), when the Minnesota River floods, it deposits large amounts of silt/sand/muck. When it dries, we mountain bikers just ride on top of it. While the DNR can bond for repair of trails damaged by catastrophic flooding (recent examples: Root River, Willard Munger) as well as their replacement after 20 years of wear and tear, bonding money isn’t used for ongoing maintenance. If a paved trail is approved for the MN River Bottoms, it’ll require a major MOU with some entity (City of Bloomington?) for the maintenance.
Lastly, Brett explained that getting the new trail funded (no sure thing) doesn’t mean that it’ll get built. It’ll just start the process. As I blogged, the DNR has included the trail in its list of those to be supported by its trails-related $10 million preliminary 2014 bonding request (see pages 17-18 of this PDF).
We won’t know till next spring whether that’s approved by the legislature and signed by Gov. Dayton
The planning process could ultimately culminate with a result that a new paved trail is neither practical, affordable, or acceptable to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In which case, the bond money will simply shift to acquisition/development of other trails.
While it’s not too early for MORC to ‘get in the game’ by developing relationships with key people/organizations, it seems too early to rally the troops for broader advocacy efforts like letter-writing and organized lobbying of legislators. That’s a decision for the MORC Board, of course.
I think we can safely assume that Brett and the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota will take MORC’s mountain biking-related concerns seriously and work to find a way to accommodate mountain biking along the MN River Bottoms. The Council was an early supporter in the creation of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails (CLMTBT) and Brett knows the important role MORC played in its development.
The success of Cuyuna has far-reaching positive implications for mountain biking’s future development in Minnesota, especially on state-owned land. We’ll need to continue partnering with the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota to help it happen, so we best treat them as a partner, even if we sometimes disagree.
In short, I love these trails because A) they’re only 35 minutes away from my house; B) they’re generally open when all other trails in the area are closed, especially in winter; C) there are many optional technical obstacles to ride there which I love; D) they’re not as well-maintained as the other singletrack trails in the area (vive la différence!); and E) riding in the wilderness setting along the river is a treat.
So I was distressed to learn that this trail system might be at risk because of plans under consideration to put either a paved or an ‘improved surface’ trail there. Some members of MORC who have been paying attention and working on this issue for years have asked others to get involved.
Don and I are meeting on Friday this week with a couple of other MORC members who have a long history with this issue, Dennis Porter and Gary Sjoquist. My purpose in composing this blog post now is primarily self-serving: writing about an issue is a way for me to better understand it. Of course, I’m hoping others will benefit from it.
The issue is complicated in part because of the number of land managers, including:
The Minnesota Valley Recreational Trail was authorized by the Minnesota legislature in 1971, to run from Fort Snelling to Le Sueur, and later was incorporated into the newly established Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area in 1976, to be administered by the Minnesota DNR. The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1976, and much of the land between Fort Snelling to Bloomington Ferry is part of both the National Wildlife Refuge and and the Minnesota Valley Recreation Area.
For mountain bikers, the issue is focused on the bottom-land portion of the trail system between Cedar Avenue and the Bloomington Ferry Bridge.
The 2002-2003 MVSRA User Survey, page 39 (page 51 of the PDF):
Multiuse: The trail should be a multiuse trail system with differing uses in different segments of the trail (not all segments of the trail need to accommodate all uses).
Trail Surface: When asked about whether they prefer a different trail surface, most people seem to be satisfied with the surface they are using. Those using the paved surface in Fort Snelling State Park prefer to stay on paved trails and those using the natural surface in the Bloomington area, for example, prefer that type of surface. When asked what they think about more paved trails, users either strongly oppose or mildly oppose more paved trails.
Recommendations per trail segment including units Cedar Avenue to Bloomington Ferry page 51 (page 63 of the PDF):
In lieu of official trail development, local biking groups such as MORC (Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists) have aligned and maintained an informal trail with volunteers. A significant amount of erosion is occurring on the bluffsides, and in the ravines in this area due to a variety of factors (topography, soils, run-off from the streets and developments along the bluff, and a proliferation 52 of trails due to difficult stream crossings). Because of this, the City of Bloomington is working with MORC to develop more sustainable mountain-biking trails in this area.
On page 52 (page 64 of the PDF):
It should be noted that throughout the planning process, little-to-no support was expressed from the public for a traditional paved multiuse trail through this area. (The public is defined as those who attended meetings, sent in written comments, or who participated in the Household and User Surveys.)
The magazine isn’t available online so here’s a photo of the article and the text:
A trail section that has sat for decades as a good idea may soon become a place where people get outdoors and connect with nature—thanks to a newly formed citizen group.
They call themselves the Friends of the Minnesota Valley’s Trail Advocacy Group. Although they are small in number, their dedication and know-how are making big strides in completing the Minnesota Valley State Trail. The founder and retired manager of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Ed Crozier, leads the group.
“Me and my retired friend, Dick Duerre, decided we needed to contribute to something again in our retirement,” explained Crozier. Since then others have joined the cause, and with Crozier’s track record of success in creating the wildlife refuge, there are high hopes for this effort.
The Legislature authorized the Minnesota Valley State Trail in 1967. The trail was intended to extend about 60 miles from Fort Snelling State Park, through the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area (MVSRA), with its southern border in Belle Plaine. Currently about six miles of the trail are paved and another 40 miles, within in the MVSRA, are unpaved.
The trail advocacy group is working on the nearly 20 miles of unfinished trail. Usually the biggest impediment to developing a trail is gaining access through privately owned land. That is what makes this project unique; nearly all the land is publicly owned. Such an opportunity should not be passed up, according to Crozier.
Thousands of people would have easy access to the trail, with trailheads near several light rail stations. Metro-area residents may be surprised to find this oasis of nature along the Minnesota River, within steps of their homes. “The trail would help people appreciate the Minnesota River and the National Wildlife Refuge, and in turn, hopefully help to protect it,” said Crozier.
The bulk of the trail section runs through the city of Bloomington, and citizen involvement has been most active here. A Bloomington group called the Geezer Squad has become particularly involved in restoring the historic Cedar Avenue Bridge connection to the trail. The bridge was built in 1920 and operated as a pedestrian bridge for years until its deteriorating condition led to its closing in 2002. The bridge crosses over Long Meadow Lake and overlooks marshland with abundant wildlife.
Now that the trail is mapped out, money is needed to develop it. “The Parks & Trails Council arranged for us to meet with the Department of Natural Resources folks, which kicked off the efforts to calculate cost estimates [for 13 miles of the trail],” said Crozier. Now the group is talking with legislators to appropriate bonding dollars.
As soon as 2014, a bonding bill may be passed to start the work. The group is dedicated to press on until the trail is finished. “Most of us are past retirement age; this is our last hoorah,” said Crozier.
On their petition page they support having two trails. And they avoid using the word ‘paved’ for their trail:
The ten-foot wide trail will have a surface suitable for hiking and narrow-tire biking. A separate mountain bike trail will also be maintained, usually out of sight of the hike/bike trail. The two trails will share bridges and other structures at stream crossings and other barriers. ATVs, snowmobiles and horses will not be allowed.
Some of my random thoughts:
Are trail descriptions like “improved surface” and “finished” are really euphemisms for ‘paved?’
Some government agencies support having two trails; others oppose it. And some support having a paved trail while others oppose it. Thus far, I’ve not found any online documents to verify these positions, nor have I talked to anyone from these agencies.
Would I support a new paved or “improved surface” trail in the River Bottoms as long as the existing MTB trail was maintained as a separate trail? It’s hard to justify the cost, estimated to be $2.5 million. The pool of money for 21 trail-related projects initially considered by the 2013 MN Legislature was ultimately removed from the HF 1183-4 bill. It’ll likely come up for 2014 of course, and I can think of many mountain bike-related trails that could greatly benefit from that money instead.
The DNR should be considered a friend of mountain biking because they control Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trail System and many other areas around the state that would be conducive to future mountain bike trails. And without even being asked, they just kicked another $100,000 this year into Cuyuna.
So mountain bikers’ position needs to be very carefully nuanced, with a eye towards maintaining and even strengthening our relationships with the DNR and the Parks and Trails Council. We don’t want to win this battle in a way that contributes to losing the war. But the MTB trail system in the MN River Bottoms is a gem that we need to protect.
… a great opportunity to network with other park and trail supporters from around the state, learn about the issues, and hear from park leaders and legislators. Whether you come as a member of a Friends group, a concerned citizen or a student looking to learn about the process, you’ll leave informed and your involvement strengthens our efforts to preserve and enhance Minnesota’s special places! The morning will equip you with the necessary tools to meet with your legislators.
Wegner recalled that once he and others were glumly discussing the fact that they didn’t have the necessary state money to match the potential federal money when Parks & Trails Government Relations Director Judy Erickson approached them and asked what was wrong. They explained and she took them to the sixth floor of the State Office Building, told the people there that she wanted a bill written and what she wanted it to say and then took it to DFL Rep. John Ward and Republican Sen. Paul Koering and told them to sponsor it. Eventually, the $150,000 was appropriated. “The state is getting a million dollar trail for $150,000,” Wegner said.
Griff, I remember that conversation with Judy very well. It was amazing to me how much Judy was respected by everyone that she spoke with. Everyone from the people that wrote the bill to Rep Ward and Sen. Koering treated her with respect and obvious appreciation for all the work she did to lobby for state parks.
The energy that Judy exudes is infectious, she has such a positive attitude and full of attitude of we can get this done. She was also critical in holding my hand as I testified in front of the house committee in support of the bill. What a scary experience but, I knew that Judy was there and could always help me with a difficult question.
I asked Judy to send me a blurb about her role. She wrote:
A veteran lobbyist, sharing her strategic legislative and communications skills, and passion, to help communities secure state investments for economic development, tourism and infrastructure. For Cuyuna, helping them develop a community wide approach to state investments in the Cuyuna Lakes Trail and CSRA and turning the area into the place for active recreation year-round; and creating business opportunities along the way. "One ride on a mountain bike was all it took. The adrenaline and the scenic beauty of Cuyuna combine for an amazing memory." Unique signature, besides working really hard, is sharing apples and apple pies or two from our Pleasant Valley Orchard.
My photos of others who spoke during the morning session:
Brett Feldman, Parks and Trails Council Executive Director; Luke Skinner, Deputy Director of MnDNR Parks and Trails Division; Erika Rivers, Assistant Commissioner of MnDNR
Greg Mack, Director of Ramsey County Parks and Recreation; Tom Ryan, Superintendent of Olmsted County Parks; Rep. Alice Hausman, Chair of House Capital Investment Committee;
Rep. Leon Lillie, Assistant Majority Leader, Vice-Chair Legacy Committee; Rep. Jean Wagenius, Chair of House Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Finance Committee; Sen. David Tomassoni, Chair of Senate Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Division.
Sen. Dan Sparks, member, Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Division; Rep. Phyllis Kahn, Chair of House Legacy Committee; Rep. Denny McNamara, member, Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Finance Committee; Joe Bagnoli, Government Relations Consultant for Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota.
My wife and I became members of the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota earlier this year when we decided to make bicycling a regular recreational activity… and were thrilled at the number and quality of paved bike trails around the state.
I typed up the text of the article (below) so that more of my fellow Minnesota mountain bikers might A) know what Tim Wegner has done for our sport and thank him for it; and B) become members of the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota, both in appreciation for what they did to help the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trail System become a reality (details in the article) as well as to support the organization and their work.
Tim Wegner: Mountain biking as a way of life
by Linda Picone
For Tim Wegner, a hobby turned into a business. But mountain biking not only changed his life, it helped create a new outdoor resource in Minnesota, the Cuyuna Mountain Bike Trail System, a world-class 25-mile bike trail network with areas for riders at all levels.
Wegner, the former southern Minnesota representative of the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), is credited by many as being the single most effective mover of the the mountain bike trails at the Cuyuna Lakes Recreation Area, which opened for use in June.
In the early 1980s, while Wegner lived Bismarck, ND, he did a lot of road biking and was a regular a local bike shop. “I walked in there one day and there was this funky looking bike,” he says. “The guys said, ‘You’ve got to ride it; it’s the best ride you’ll ever have.'”
They were right, and all of a sudden he was a mountain biker. When he moved to Minnesota about 10 years later, he assumed he was coming to a mountain bike mecca, but was disappointed with the number and quality of trails available. Appointed to a users’ group to represent cross-country skiers for Lebanon Hills Park in Dakota County, he ended up becoming friendly with the man representing mountain bikers and was encouraged to become the local representative of IMBA, becoming an advocate and activist for the sport.
Lebanon Hills turned out to be a good training ground for Wegner. “We learned that it really took a lot of time to build a trail by hand,” he says. Although there were machines that could make it go faster, they cost $25,000 to $40,000–more than Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists, which was doing the work, could afford. “That put the kibosh on plans to expand the trail at Lebanon Hills. You burn your volunteers out pretty fast when they work all weekend to finish 50 feet of trail.”
That frustration led to Wegner’s next move on the mountain bike trail: He and his buddy from the Lebanon Hills user group became partners in a new business venture, Trail Source. They bought one of those expensive machines and went into the business of building sustainable, natural surface trails in Minnesota and Wisconsin (he still has a day job, as a pharmaceutical representative).
A new trail opportunity
About five years ago, Wegner was in search of areas outside the Metro where mountain bike trails could be established. He met with Courtland Nelson, DNR state parks director, to see what might be accomplished. “I said, ‘Minnesota doesn’t have any true mountain bike trails in its state parks; I think you’re missing the mark,” he old Nelson. “He said, ‘You’re right, we don’t.'”
Nelson urged him to look at Cuyuna. “I thought, ‘Who wants to look at an old iron ore mine?'”
That was before he saw it. Wegner took a trip north to explore the Cuyuna Lakes area. “I looked at it and thought it was incredible. The potential was so awesome and the place was so beautiful.” Steve Weber, manager of the Cuyuna Lakes Recreation Area, was with Wegner as he visualized the possibility of 25 to 40 miles of trails through the area, but he didn’t see the same possibilities.
Wegner not only saw what could be built at Cuyuna Lakes, he set out to do what was needed to create it, from convincing then Congressman James Oberstar to get federal funding to getting a bill written at the Minnesota Legislature for matching funds.
“It was incredible the way it came together,” Wegner says. “It could have stumbled at any step.”
The Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota was a key player at several points, Wegner said. When he needed someone to carry–and write–a bill to get matching state funds for the trail, the Parks and Trails legislative liaison Judy Erickson showed him into an office at the State Capitol, got a bill written, found a legislative sponsor and pushed her contacts for approval (it was approved, but then vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, but it passed the next year). “Parks and Trails gave continuous support for us,” Wegner says. “I could always go to Brett (Feldman, now executive director) when I got beat up by someone.” At one point, the Parks & Trails Council provided a $50,000 loan in order to help get matching funds.
The finished trail
Construction of the trails had its challenges, Wegner says. “There were a lot of bidders on it, but not many truly qualified mountain bike trail builders.” That meant he, representing IMBA, was closely involved in advising the contractor. “We bumped heads a few times, but he was always willing to understand our point of view.”
Mountain bike enthusiasts see the finished trails as the best trails for accomplished riders in the Midwest. But Wegner is also pleased that there are trails for all levels of bikers, so it’s a place for families as well as for “aggressive” riders who want a serious challenge. “We put stuff up in Cuyuna Lakes that there’s no way I would ever ride,” he says.
He sees an economic boon for the local community–something he wasn’t even thinking about when he first envisioned a trail. “I was only looking for a place to ride mountain bikes, but I looked at the town and saw a lot of empty storefronts,” he says. “I thought maybe we could have an economic impact on this town.” During the grand opening of the trails in June, both restaurants in town ran out of food, he says. “That says to me, yeah, mountain bikers can make a difference.”
The next challenges
Wegner is still hoping to make progress on a trail system in Camden State Park and there are trail possibilities at Pillsbury State Forest and Cut Lake Trail in Foothills State Forest. But, other than his business, he’s taking a quieter role. “I think at certain times you need to step away a little bit and let others come in.”
He looks back at his activities as IMBA representative and at the push for the Cuyuna Mountain Bike Trail System and he’s satisfied: “I think we’ve improved the status of mountain bikers in Minnesota and I don’t think you could ask for more out of your life than to make it better for a sport you have a passion for.”