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Early draft of Heartland Trail extension presented -- two options for Park Rapids to Detroit Lakes

The Department of Natural Resources is in the process of drafting a master route plan for connecting the existing Heartland Trail from the current terminus in Park Rapids through Detroit Lakes to Moorhead.

"We will be trying to thread the needle through the jewels of the area," said Tim Browning, northwest regional manager of the DNR Trails and Waterways Division.

DNR officials arrived in Park Rapids Wednesday to hear citizen input. Several attending - including current and former DNR employees - pointed out funding for existing trail maintenance is inadequate.

"Funding is not up to what the public expects," said David Schotzko, area Trails and Waterways supervisor. "User numbers are high," he said. "It's good for the economy." But the trails aren't meeting grade.

Schotzko and retired Trails and Waterways supervisor Dick Kimball noted three or four bridges on the Heartland Trail are in need of replacement. Built for the railroad nearly a century ago, the bridges now have a 1,200-pound weight limit.

Ensuring a maintenance mechanism is in place would be ideal, Kimball said.

Area resident Neil King agreed. "This doesn't make sense without a long-term maintenance contract," he said, citing tree roots emerging on the current trail and other safety issues. A group of volunteers to assist with trail maintenance is in the formation stages, he said.

"Thousands of people use this trail. We have to figure out how to protect this valuable asset," King said. "It's a big part of this economy."

Options being weighed

In 2006, the Legislature authorized the Heartland Trail extension from Park Rapids. The Legislature appropriated $1.5 million this year and has $250,000 from an earlier allocation for planning, acquisition and development.

A cost estimate has not yet been determined, nor has the substance of the trail surface. It may be comprised of bituminous or "soft" material - such as crushed rock or grass.

Currently, two routes are being considered between Park Rapids and Detroit Lakes: Option A would head west to the Smoky Hills State Forest, south to Wolf Lake, west to Frazee and northwest to Detroit Lakes. Option B is to follow the Highway 34 corridor.

Similarly, two routes are being considered between Detroit Lakes and Fargo, one following the CSAH 6 corridor west from Detroit Lakes, connecting north to Hawley, and the second aligned with Highway 10.

"But we are hearing people don't want to ride next to roads," Browning said, "They want a high quality, scenic cross country route. This trail could be a statement of the area," he said, noting the pathway will take riders from prairie to forest and on to the Red River Valley.

The hills, rivers and extensive wetlands will pose a challenge, however.

Estimated length is 92 miles, but that's subject to change.

"Nothing has been decided yet," Browning emphasized, "Nothing is chiseled in stone."

Township, city, county and private landowner input will be sought. Construction will be completed in segments, the sequence will be determined by the individual communities' readiness.

"We will be gauging the receptivity to the trail," he said. "We do not have condemnation authority.

"Right now, it's a blank canvass," Browning said.

Contribution to community The demographics of trail use, and outdoor recreation in general, are changing, Browning noted. "We are not seeing as many youth on bikes, but we're seeing more adults. The older generation is walking and biking."

More people are hopping aboard a bike for the commute to work and residential areas are springing up along trails.

Overall, outdoor recreation numbers are declining, Browning said. Hunting and fishing numbers are "alarmingly down," he said, "a marked change from the traditional."

This, he pointed out drives funding sources for wildlife and habitat initiatives.

He's hoping to forge a partnership with communities, to promote outdoor recreation and "the health of the nation."

Trails, he said, can contribute to a community's economic development and its quality of life. "It's key to making an area more attractive to industry.

Communities, he said, will be invited to bring trails through the heart of the city and create spurs.

He estimates segments of the trail will be ready for riding within the next five years.

Comments on the proposed Heartland Trail extension are currently being accepted. Questions and comments may be directed to Laurie Young, Trails and Waterways planning supervisor, at 651-259-5638, laurie. young@dnr.state.mn.us, or Laurie Young, Planning Supervisor, Box 52, 500 Lafayette Rd., St. Paul, MN 55155.

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