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Minnesota Land Trust, Duluth partnering to market outdoor recreation

Hansi Johnson of Carlton is the Upper Midwest regional director at the International Mountain Bicycling Association. In September, Johnson becomes the new director of recreation lands with the Minnesota Land Trust. Hansi is on one of the many gravity-based mountain bike trails at Spirit Mountain with his mountain bike. (Clint Austin /

The Minnesota Land Trust typically focuses on preserving and restoring natural lands. But the nonprofit organization will write a new page into its playbook come September, when it will partner with the city of Duluth in a three-year pilot project designed to help people make the most of outdoor recreational opportunities.

The very future of conservation efforts could hinge on the engagement of young people in outside activities, said Kris Larson, executive director of the Minnesota Land Trust.

“We need to encourage people to get outside. If our next generation doesn’t spend time outdoors, they’re not going to care what happens to natural areas,” he predicted.

Kathy Bergen, director of Duluth’s Parks and Recreation Division, agrees.

“If we don’t develop an appreciation of nature in young people, in 20 to 25 years, there won’t be any momentum to maintain funding for natural resources-based assets like parks or trails,” she said.

Duluth has earmarked up to $310,000 to develop and market the city’s trails and other outdoor offerings over the next three years. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Land Trust has agreed to chip in another $80,000 during the same time span. Additional support for the initiative will be sought from other groups.

To lead the effort, the Land Trust announced that it has hired Hansi Johnson of Carlton as its director of recreational lands. For the past five years, Johnson has served as Midwest regional director for the International Mountain Bicycling Association, a position in which he worked closely with the Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores to develop a growing network of trails in the Duluth area.

“In my new job, I’ll be doing similar things but for all sorts of additional user groups,” Johnson said, noting that in addition to bicyclists, he will be working with cross-country skiers, hikers, paddlers and others.

“I think we have a huge opportunity and that’s why I took the job,” Johnson said. “The fact that the position even exists shows how committed the city is to developing its outdoor recreational opportunities.”

David Montgomery, Duluth’s chief administrative officer, said he considers Johnson a natural choice to spearhead the effort because of “the strong connection he already has with many of the stakeholders and his ability to understand what an effective marketing message might be.”

The city has some resources with which to work, thanks to a half-percent sales tax recently reinstated on local lodging, dining and drinking establishments. That tax is expected to generate about $18 million in proceeds in the next decade or so, Montgomery said.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness has pledged to use that money to support the growth of recreation and tourism along the city’s St. Louis River corridor.

Montgomery said he expects those investments will make Duluth’s western neighborhoods more attractive places to live, and will simultaneously spur commercial growth.

“It’s a part of our town that has struggled ever since U.S. Steel closed down its mill, but these neighborhoods also offer unparalleled topography, natural beauty and a host of assets waiting to be discovered,” he said.

Duluth recently was voted the nation’s “best outdoors town” in an online poll conducted by Outside magazine. Johnson said that’s a great mainstream marketing tag, but there is much more the city still can do to reach its full potential as an outdoor destination.

“We have many of the components we need to succeed, but the real story will be told down the trail,” he said.

Montgomery stressed the importance of working with others to thoughtfully develop the river corridor.

“Across the board, developing successful public-private partnerships is incredibly important for municipalities today,” he said. “Organizations like COGGS bring talent and expertise to the picture that a city might not have in-house.”

Montgomery said those organizations can provide valuable sweat equity, as well as access to additional financial support. “They can tap into user groups and national organizations, leading to funding opportunities that really broaden what a city can do. Users also can generate a lot of buzz and excitement because they’re already part of a certain community.”

Montgomery described Duluth as a city on the cusp of broad recognition for its growing array outdoor offerings.

“What we have is a real window of opportunity here, and we’re in the process of seizing that opportunity,” he said