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Duluth City Council to ponder fines for trail abuse

Duluth soon could gain a new line of defense for its rapidly growing network of trails.

If enacted, an ordinance to be put forward by Duluth City Councilor Emily Larson for a vote Monday would empower the city to seek restitution from people who abuse or damage recreational paths.

“The city has been putting an enormous amount of time and resources into the development of its trail system, and we want to protect that investment,” Larson said.

City paths sustain thousands of dollars of damage each year when people use them despite inappropriate conditions or when trails are used for unintended activities, according to Judy Gibbs, Duluth’s trail and bikeway coordinator.

It’s already against the law to use trails that have been posted as “closed” or to disturb a groomed cross-country ski trail in Duluth, but Gibbs said: “There are no teeth in the current ordinance.”

While Larson’s ordinance would provide Duluth with new authority to bill people for their trail transgressions, she readily admits the city lacks the staff to police more than 50 miles of path.

Larson hopes that adopting a new ordinance will heighten public awareness of the need to abide by trail rules.

But Larson also is looking to users to step up and lend a hand, by reporting such abuses.

Waylon Munch, co-chairman of the Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores (COGGS), said the proposed new ordinance could empower trail users to get more involved in flagging and reporting problem behavior.

“It will draw some clear lines, so more users may be willing to confront poor behavior and let people know when what they’re doing is illegal,” he said.

Katlin Erpestad, secretary and president-elect of the Duluth XC Ski Club, said she hopes the city will focus on better informing the public about trail rules.

“I support the idea of the ordinance, but there will need to be a strong educational component, too, because many people simply don’t seem to know that city trails are ever closed for use,” she said.

Munch said keeping people off vulnerable trails can be tough.

“It becomes a big issue in the spring,” he said. “Especially this year, it seemed like the trails never got a chance to dry out properly and then there was all the buzz about new trails. People get impatient, and they want to get out and ride before they should.”

But Munch said COGGS members know very well the dangers of erosion and the significant damage that can result from using trails when they’re in vulnerable condition. He said volunteers from the group spend a significant amount of time each week repairing compromised stretches of trail.

Larson said COGGS and other similar groups could play an instrumental role in heading off damage.

“Many of them already do a good job of calling each other out and saying, ‘That’s not cool to ride a wet trail, because you’re going to ruin it for everyone,’ ” Larson said.

Gibbs said the continued expansion of Duluth’s trail system could prove helpful.

“With more trails, we should have more legitimate users. So we should have more eyes on the trails, which really helps,” she said.

Munch said much of the damage caused to trails is the unintentional result of people who are unaware of the impact they’re causing, but he added that there are also egregious examples of people who willfully behave in a destructive manner. He said fences blocking off trails that were under construction have been torn down in the past by people who couldn’t wait to check them out.

Gibbs said the city also continues to encounter serious damage from people who take motorized vehicles or horses onto trails where they’re not permitted.

Larson wants to establish a hotline that people can call to report trail damage and rule violations.

But Erpestad said users shouldn’t be asked to shoulder sole responsibility for policing trails.

“It wouldn’t be fair if the only people they expected to enforce the rules were the people using city trails, because that’s not our job,” she said.

“When people damage trails, it impacts everyone’s experience, and it costs the city money. So I understand the city’s desire to put some teeth into its policy for dealing with that,” said Tom O’Rourke, executive director of Hartley Nature Center. “But I’ll be interested to see how it’s enforced.”

He said that without enforcement, the ordinance might be widely disregarded, like rules against walking dogs off-leash in the city often are.

Gibbs said the city will be stepping up its efforts to post trails when they are unsuitable for use. She said the city also is looking at placing smartphone codes at trailheads that will link users to information on trail-specific conditions.

COGGS also posts trail updates online at

 As Duluth’s trail network expands, Munch said maintaining it will become a greater challenge, and the best way to keep the system from falling into disrepair is to prevent damage on the front end.

“It’s very important, because if our trails continue to see damage, we could eventually lose access to the very network we’ve worked so hard to create,” he said.