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Rec plan aims to end usage fights

After working long and hard to lay the groundwork for Becker County's new Recreational Plan, a steering committee is ready to hand the ball off to the county board.

After working long and hard to lay the groundwork for Becker County's new Recreational Plan, a steering committee is ready to hand the ball off to the county board.

Thanks to the project, the county has created a very useful website with an interactive, multi-layer map showing designated trails and other recreational amenities --including public accesses, snowmobile trails, campsites and hiking trails -- 16 categories in all.

For hunters, there is a separate map showing tax-forfeited lands by township. Forest Township, for example, looks like it's about three-quarters tax-forfeited land.

But the real achievement of the steering committee was to develop a process and a system for the county to handle often-heated recreational proposals -- anything from a walking trail, to a horse-riding trail, to an old-growth preserve to an ATV trail.

Here's the process, under the draft plan:

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When a project is proposed, such as a designated ATV trail, it will first go for review to a yet-to-be created Recreation Advisory Committee.

The committee will determine if the project needs an environmental assessment worksheet, conditional use permit or even an environmental impact statement.

(A new conditional use permit will be developed that applies specifically to recreational projects. Such permits are now used primarily for construction projects.)

If further environmental review is needed, the project will go through that process, which involves public review and comments.

The newly reinstated Environmental Review Committee -- which used to play a key role in planning and zoning decisions --  may also review the project and make recommendations to the county planning commission.

Either way, it goes next to the planning commission for review and recommendations, then to the Becker County Board for review and a final decision.

Both the planning commission and county board hearings involve public review and comments.

If the Recreational Advisory Committee finds that the project does not need further environmental review, it then looks at whether the zoning is correct for the proposed use.

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If yes, the committee recommendation goes straight to the county board for action.

If no, it goes first to the planning commission, then the county board.

The idea is to give all recreational opportunities a fair chance, while protecting vulnerable areas of the county and separating incompatible uses. Motorized and non-motorized activities tend to clash.

The website makes it easy to see where the existing trails and other amenities are located.

Take a look -- go to the Becker County website ( www.co.becker.mn.us ) and click on the link in the upper right corner of the home page that says "explore our boundless recreational opportunities."

The recreational website started as a way to document inventory and keep it updated.

But it has morphed into much more than that - a tool that can be used by planners and the public, with GPS capabilities that could allow a person on a trail to find their exact location on a map on their cell phone.

The Recreational Advisory Committee will be created by restructuring the county's park board. The Winter Trails Advisory Committee will be disbanded, but may simply become an advisory committee within the new Recreational Advisory Committee.

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As part of the recreational inventory process, existing trails will be assessed to make sure they are properly classified, properly designed and responsibly used.

Some trails may be classified as needing a higher level of monitoring or enforcement to ensure that the environmental impact is acceptable.

Other trails may be classified as needing redesign, restrictions on use or outright closure to protect natural resources.

Any recommended trail closure would first go to the planning commission, then the county board for review and action.

An important part of the plan involves developing a "needs assessment" process for evaluating activities. That will allow the county to proactively plan for future recreational activities on tax-forfeited lands.

Another element in the plan is to identify protection zones within the county by working with the White Earth Reservation, the Minnesota DNR, county planning and zoning, county natural resource management, and the Recreational Advisory Committee.

The plan calls for the county to replace its parks and recreation ordinance with a new ordinance, to put some teeth into governance and enforcement issues regarding parks and recreational land use.

The plan also calls for area land managers to meet two to four times per year to coordinate projects, work together, and provide better access to county amenities and protection of natural resources.

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And the plan includes marketing and promoting Becker County's recreational opportunities -- including some efforts on a regional scale.

Bowe covers the Becker County Board and the court system for the Tribune, and handles the opinion pages for the Tribune and Focus. As news editor of both papers, he is the go-to contact person for readers and the general public: breaking or hard news tips, story ideas, questions and general feedback should be directed to him.
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