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Plans for Heartland Trail slowly take shape

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Although funding for the Heartland Trail has passed, it could be a long, involved process before a route is finalized and the trail built.

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed off on a bill to allow $15.3 million for state trails, and specifically $1.5 million for the Heartland Trail. The 49-mile multi-use trail runs from Park Rapids to Cass Lake mainly on an abandoned railroad grade. It also runs a few miles north to Walker.

Although the House file calls for the trail to connect Moorhead to Park Rapids, via Detroit Lakes, nothing is for sure at this point, said Planning, Acquisition and Development Manager for the trails and waterway division of the Department of Natural Resources Stan Linnell.

"We're pretty early in the process yet," he said. "We're still working on completing the master plan for the trail. That should be completed by this fall."

The master plan is just the general information for the proposed trail. The DNR has been meeting with communities along the route to get feedback and information to see about potential routes.

"Selecting a route is the most challenging thing when there is not an existing railroad route to go on. We need to look at what properties are available. Once a route is established, that'll help us determine where to start," Linnell said.

Although it's been talked about and the House file states the trail would run through Detroit Lakes, Linnell said he can't say for sure simply because it's too early in the plan.

"We can't actually start building anything until we have a route that's in public ownership. That'd be the first step," he said.

In the past, it's been mentioned the trail would run along the Highway 34 right of way, but Linnell said that may always not be possible either.

"There are a lot of issues with wetlands along certain stretches of the (Highway) 34 corridor, which would make it either difficult or very costly to build, or in some areas might not want to even attempt just because we certainly don't want to impact wetlands," he said.

Alternate ideas have been surfacing, he added.

Once the land for the route is established and purchased for public ownership if need be, and the master plan is finished this fall, Linnell said a timeline for construction is still iffy.

"A lot of it depends on whether there's property acquisition, and whether it's simple acquisition or whether it's cross-country and there's numerous landowners involved. Potentially, it has taken certain other trails years to assemble," he said.

The $1.5 million will first be used for land acquisition, so depending on how much that would cost, determines how much funding will be left for the actual construction of the trail.

Although he's not as heavily involved with the planning portion of the trail, going out talking with the community members, he said earlier this winter there wasn't a lot of feedback, simply because people didn't know too much about the situation. Now people are learning more and more, and the DNR is hearing more support.

"Certainly Detroit Lakes has been one of the most interested parties we have talked to, so that is helpful to have supportive officials and citizens," he said.

The original House file did not include Frazee along the trail, but a modified proposal has been sent to the House to include Frazee. At this point it's just a bill, and hasn't been voted on yet. It can be viewed at www.house.leg.state.mn.us, by searching for No. 4191.

Now that there is money in place for the project, Linnell said staff will be coming to the area to meet with people and determine where it makes the most sense to start.

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