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Setting a path for Duluth's trail system

Brothers Howard (left) and Don Hinnenkamp hike a section of Duluth's Western Waterfront Trail last month. The city is working on an updated trails plan, focusing on trails of all kinds in the St. Louis River corridor. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com 1 / 2
t11.20.27.2016 -- Steve Kuchera -- kucheraTRAILS1127c5 -- Kent Lund crosses a bridge over Kingsbury Creek while walking dogs Skweedis (left) and Kojo on Duluth's Western Waterfront Trail recently. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Nearly two years after the city of Duluth unveiled a plan to boost recreational offerings in the St. Louis River corridor, the city is homing in on the work left to complete the corridor's trails system.

The corridor has begun to take shape through a multitude of master plans and the trails have begun to come to fruition, with some trails already opened to users.

Since the St. Louis River corridor project kicked off, planning has started for a Grand Avenue Nordic Center that the Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club hopes will expand access to the sport when it opens next year. The process to designate the St. Louis River as a National Water Trail is underway and those involved hope it will draw people back to the river after decades of restoration work on the impaired waterway. Efforts are underway to improve and reopen the Magney-Snively trails on Spirit Mountain to horse riding.

And COGGS (Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores) has constructed nearly 20 miles of new trails in the corridor this year and is seeing a boost of excitement about mountain biking in the community.

"The river corridor initiative has been a springboard to a lot of the success we're feeling right now," said Waylon Munch, chairman of COGGS.

With the trails in various stages of completion, Duluth's Parks and Recreation Division has laid out a to-do list for the next four years in a new St. Louis River Corridor Trails Plan. The Duluth Parks and Recreation Commission is expected to vote on the plan during its Dec. 14 meeting, followed by the Duluth City Council at a meeting later in December.

The 54-page trails plan will provide the city with guidance on completing the trails in the corridor through 2020, which is a realistic end date for those projects, said Andrew Slade, assistant manager of Duluth's Parks and Recreation Division.

The overall St. Louis River corridor project includes trails, river restoration and access, parks, the Casket Quarry climbing center, and improvements or renovations at the Lake Superior Zoo and Fairmount Park, Wade Stadium and Spirit Mountain. It totals $50 million, of which $18 million is coming from a tourism tax and $32 million is expected from state, federal and private sources.

The new trails plan is an update of the city's 2011 Trail and Bikeway Plan, which outlined the work needed on trails throughout the city at the time.

"So much has changed since then, especially with the new emphasis on the St. Louis River corridor, but also for example, in 2012, we had a flood wipe out a huge amount of our park infrastructure, so the reality on the ground had shifted a lot and the funding scenario shifted a lot," Slade said. "We really felt, given our real desire to make Duluth a premier trails city and our commitment to the St. Louis River corridor, it made a ton of sense to dive right in and make sure we were capturing all the things we said we'd do in the St. Louis River corridor and have a clear path forward in terms of the work that we're going to do."

In addition to a focus on only the St. Louis River corridor, the 2016 plan's largest departure from the 2011 plan is its emphasis on making trails accessible to people of all neighborhoods, economic backgrounds and abilities by viewing trail experiences through an "equity lens," Slade said.

"Wouldn't it be nice if every neighborhood had access to a hiking trail, a biking trail? There's neighborhoods like Morgan Park today that are still basically isolated from the trail system. That's not what we want long-term," Slade said.

"Big, bold vision"

The St. Louis River Corridor Trails Plan outlines gaps that need to be filled to provide more connectivity in the trail system.

The plan calls for completing a multi-use trail system by extending the Western Waterfront Trail, completing the Cross-City Trail and the Duluth Traverse and constructing an improved trail along the former Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific railroad corridor.

The Western Waterfront Trail extension is the largest gap in the trail system at this point, Slade said. When the extension is completed, the Western Waterfront Trail will be a non-motorized trail extending for 12 miles along the St. Louis River. It's going to take a major investment in planning, building and partnerships, but parks and recreation staff believe it will transform the area, he said.

The extended trail will protect the corridor, provide access to the river and create a trail connecting neighborhoods, he said. The city owns most of the proposed trail corridor, but is working with other government agencies to acquire land needed for a buffer giving trail users a scenic experience along the trail extension. That buffer also will provide a better visual quality for boaters on the river, he said.

"It's a big, bold vision that we're pretty excited about," he said.

The city has a "huge opportunity" for an upgraded and improved trail along the DWP corridor, which includes an old railroad tunnel beneath Ely's Peak. Once the DWP trail is completed, the city will have a number of trails that parallel each other in the corridor — Western Waterfront, Willard Munger, DWP and Skyline Parkway — that can be connected to create loops that will allow people to, for instance, go out on the Munger Trail and return on the DWP, Slade said.

The city's progress in completing the work in the next four years will be measured by the number of constructed trail miles each year, according to the plan. The city doesn't count the number of trail users, but Slade said a goal of the St. Louis River corridor project is to improve neighborhoods and quality of life by getting people onto the trails.

Hansi Johnson, director of recreational lands for the Minnesota Land Trust, noted that the remaining gaps in the St. Louis River corridor aren't entirely infrastructure-related now that the planned trails are starting to come to fruition. Now there's a need for hotels and restaurants to accommodate people using the trails, in addition to signs directing people to the corridor's activities, he said.

Trail maintenance is also built into the plan. It calls for the new trails to be built in a sustainable way to lessen maintenance needs in the future, Slade said.

Maintenance is always the key, Johnson said. Duluth isn't necessarily competing against recreational areas in western states because it's offering unique Duluth experiences, he noted — but it has set a high bar for a quality experience that puts Duluth above other areas that are offering similar activities.

"We've set this expectation that you come to town, you move to town, you live in town, you visit town, the experience you have is one that's going to be world-class and that will take all the (user) groups themselves to stay on that so that 10 years, 15 years, 20 years from now, that's still the same experience of folks that utilize these experiences," Johnson said.

The St. Louis River Corridor Trails Plan calls for closing the "adventure gap" in Duluth by engaging diverse populations and integrating the park and trail planning with community planning and economic development.

The work on the trails needs to ensure that they're accessible to all Duluth residents, Johnson said. An Outdoor Collaborative has formed between community organizations and the Duluth Area Family YMCA to provide all youth with access to outdoor experiences.

"I feel like that could be the thing that truly changes our community as a whole versus just the tourists and more people moving to town. We want to make sure that people that live in town get and gain access to this and also benefit from it," Johnson said.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Find a link to the St. Louis River Corridor Trails Plan document at www.duluthmn.gov/st-louis-river-corridor.

COMING MONDAY

In Monday's News Tribune, read more about what cross-country skiing, equestrian, mountain biking and paddling groups have planned for trails in the St. Louis River corridor.

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