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Heartland Trail extension plan for route from Park Rapids to Moorhead approved by DNR commissioner

Two options are being considered for the trail when it arrives in Osage, heading down to Wolf Lake and on to Frazee or heading west, paralleling Highway 34, to Detroit Lakes. (DNR map)

The Heartland Trail extension plan for the route from Park Rapids to Moorhead has been completed and approved by Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr.

Now the work begins on the precise alignment of the trail, explained Tony Walzer, DNR acquisition and development specialist. "It's still in the early stages."

Meetings will resume with communities to determine the course of the trail through cities and funding sources.

"Future development will rely on future funding," Walzer said.

The Heartland and Paul Bunyan Trail corridors were developed, for the most part, on railroad grade, he explained. The Heartland Extension, without a rail grade, will generally align with road corridors.

"However, it is not envisioned that the trail will be located entirely in road rights-of-way," the plan states. "The goal is to find alignments that take trail users off road rights-of-way, providing access to natural and cultural amenities and to scenic routes that showcase the landscape."

The DNR intends to "work with willing landowners" to acquire land for the extension.

The trail will be routed off rights-of-way to avoid wetlands, sensitive plant communities and other sensitive resources.

"Land acquisition from willing sellers will be necessary in order to accomplish these goals," the plan states.

An extensive process

Construction on the Paul Bunyan Trail, extending from south of Brainerd to Bemidji began 20 years ago, Walzer points out. And a six-mile segment south of Brainerd and two miles near Bemidji are not yet complete.

Funding of $1.5 million has been allocated for the Heartland Extension to date. Additional funding sources have not been determined, but Legacy funds could be tapped as well as federal dollars, Walzer said. No total cost estimations for the project have been announced.

Replacement of the Red Bridge in Park Rapids could happen as early as next year, he said.

The Park Rapids Downtown Plan calls for linking the trail to the downtown and riverfront parks, via a "clear and attractive multi-purpose pathway." The area between Red Bridge Park and Park Avenue is identified as a redevelopment focus area, "Red Bridge Landing."

The plan calls for redesigning the block with two large parking areas that could serve as a trailhead, several new buildings and a trail crossing with a pedestrian or sensor-activated signal to take the Heartland Trail users across Highway 34.

Another use of the initial funding is development of an underpass for crossing Highway 10 in Detroit Lakes, Walzer said. The DNR has contracted with the Minnesota Department of Transportation for the project.

Five segments

The trail has been divided into five segments: 1) from Park Rapids to Smoky Hills State Forest, 2) Smoky Hills to Frazee (2A) or - an alternative trail alignment -Smoky Hills to Detroit Lakes (2B), 3) Frazee to Detroit Lakes, Detroit Lakes to Hawley and Hawley to Moorhead.

The plan states several options exist for the Park Rapids to Smoky Hills segment.

An off-road trail is proposed to generally parallel Highway 34 from Park Rapids to Osage.

A township road located a mile north of Highway 34, on 190th Street could serve as an alternative corridor west out of Park Rapids for a short distance, then connect with Highway 34 on a township road. But the number of residential driveways makes it "less desirable."

County and township roads are being considered for routing the trail around the Smoky Hills State Forest.

"This trail segment falls almost entirely within the Pine Moraines and Outwash Plains ecological region, which is characterized by relatively hilly topography and a mixture of upland forest, farmland and tallgrass prairie, with numerous lakes," the plan states.

"Trail users will enjoy varied terrain and changing views, but the steep slopes can also create challenges for trail routing."

From Osage, a potential trail alignment could turn south following or paralleling the CSAH 47 right-of-way, then head west to cross the Smoky Hills State Forest.

From the southern boundary of the state forest, the trail alignment could follow several local and county roads to Wolf Lake.

If a trail through the Smoky Hills is found to be infeasible, an alternative is to follow CSAH 47 south to 180th Avenue west to 510th Avenue.

Segment 2A, from the Smoky Hills State Forest to Frazee would follow parallel county and township roads to Wolf Lake.

"Several options exist" for the trail continuation from Wolf Lake to Frazee.

These include continuing west along CSAH 40 to CSAH 36 then north on 36 to connect with CSAH 39 or following CSAH 38 north from Wolf Lake and following the shoreline to the northwest, then continuing west and south along CSAH 38 to connect with CSAH 39.

CSAH 39 continues south to connect with Highway 87, which heads into Frazee.

Features of the segment are Wolf Lake's park, the hamlet of Toad Lake, Amish farms, Otter Tail River Water Trail and Dead Horse Creek, a designated trout stream.

(The alternative 2B would follow Highway 34 from Smoky Hills State Forest to Detroit Lakes.)

From Frazee, several options exist for the trail to Detroit Lakes paralleling Highway 10.

Segment 4, Detroit Lakes to Hawley, will be located north of Highway 10, primarily along township and county roads.

Segment 5, Hawley to Moorhead is located south of Highway 10 to provide access to Buffalo River State Park and the Bluestem Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA).

The trail would cross U.S. 10 at Glyndon and follow a combination of county and township roads west into Moorhead.

A positive impact

Communities that support trails and respond to the needs of trail users have

seen positive effects on their local economies, according to the plan.

DNR trail studies indicate that tourists attracted to the trails use local facilities for eating, shopping, and lodging. The DNR estimates that for five trails surveyed between 2007 and 2009, summer spending totaled nearly $5 million.

Most of that spending comes from trail users who reside outside the local economy of the trail, and the spending represents "new" dollars to the local economy.

Trail users who have traveled a long distance to the trail, not surprisingly, outspend local users by a factor of about 20 on a daily basis, primarily on food, travel, and overnight accommodations.

Trails also appear to increase property values and enhance the quality of life in communities through which they run. Homes close to trails have become increasingly desirable.

The biking, hiking, jogging, dog walking, skating and horseback-riding trails also yield benefits that are highly significant but difficult to quantify, the report notes.

To the extent that trail use replaces motor vehicle use, it can result in monetary savings from lower air pollution, congestion and oil imports.

There is growing interest in the multiple benefits to public health that can result from the use of trails for outdoor recreation.

Trail use has been shown to be valuable not only in combating obesity and related public health problems but also in reducing stress, improving mental health, and encouraging healthy lifestyles.