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New enthusiasm leads to partnership on city trails

Adam Miller of Colorado Springs, Colo. rides his fat bike on the Duluth Traverse trail in Lester Park Nov. 20, 2014. Plan call for the 100-mile Duluth Traverse to be completed by 2018. (file / News Tribune)

New trails in Duluth's St. Louis River corridor are in various stages of completion, with some still in the planning stage and others ready for use by residents and tourists alike.

The city's rollout of the trails in the river corridor since last year has been met with enthusiasm from outdoor sports groups, who see it as an opportunity to boost new interest in their activity — whether it's cross-country skiing, riding horses, paddling or mountain biking.

The city of Duluth is partnering with groups, including COGGS (Cyclists of Gitchee Gummi Shores), the Duluth Area Horse Trail Alliance and the Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club, to invest more money than the city can provide on its own. Additionally, "really strong relationships with community partner organizations" are a major component of ensuring the completed trails are maintained long-term, said Andrew Slade, assistant manager of Duluth's Parks and Recreation Division.

"We'll be leaning on those long-existing community groups to play a role," he said.

The groups already have played a role in providing input on the trails laid out in the city's new St. Louis River Corridor Trails Plan. After nearly two years of work on the corridor trails, the plan will provide guidance on completing the trails in the corridor through 2020. The new trails plan, expected to be taken up by the Parks and Recreation Commission during its Dec. 14 meeting, is an update of the city's 2011 Trail and Bikeway Plan.

The process to build trails in partnership with the city is one of mutual guidance in which the city can provide project management and the user groups can provide expertise in trail design and construction, COGGS chairman Waylon Munch said. COGGS was able to use the city's funding to apply for a matching grant to double the investment.

Public-private partnership is a way cities today are investing in and maintaining parks and recreation infrastructure, said Hansi Johnson, director of recreational lands for the Minnesota Land Trust.

"These groups have some of the knowledge base on how to create the experiences and understand the end user to a certain extent — to the point where they can really help inform the city as to what that experience should be, to really ring the bell for those people that want to come and do it," he said.

Ultimately, partnering with user groups engages the community in stewarding and valuing outdoor spaces in the city, he said, adding, "when you see groups like COGGS going from 50 to 500 members, you realize that that's true engagement."

While many St. Louis River corridor trails have not yet been completed, Johnson noted that efforts by the city and trail user groups to boost Duluth's outdoor recreation already are receiving national recognition.

"The Outside magazine 'Best Places to Live' (honor in 2014) was sort of an icing on the cake. But when you look across the spectrum, regardless of activity, there's been some article or some accolade that's been given to each of those experiences on a really high level across the country, whether it's the Superior Hiking Trail or the mountain bike trails or fishing or paddling on the river," Johnson said. "All of those things, you're starting to see them more and more in the vernacular, in the conversation of recreation in the country, which is really cool to see."

Cross-country skiing

The Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club is hoping that the new Grand Avenue Nordic Center, which will include a cross-country ski trail with lighting and snowmaking capabilities, will allow access to the sport for more Duluth residents. The snowmaking capabilities, at the base of Spirit Mountain, will set the trail apart from other Nordic ski areas in the region, said the club's Annalisa Peterson. The club expects the trail to be ready for use at this time next year, although the club still is fundraising for the project.

Scott Nelson of Duluth cross-country skis at the Spirit Mountain Nordic ski trails in Duluth in 2012.  (file / News Tribune)"We think this will have a lot of different benefits. Mainly, it makes it consistent. It means that as soon as it's cold enough, there's a place where Duluthians can ski, and we're really excited about the fact that we believe that's going to expand access to cross-country skiing in a really different way in Duluth," she said.

The club hopes that the Nordic center will increase the number of local skiers. Peterson said that with consistent snow cover, school groups will be able to use the trail without worrying about whether there will be enough snow to plan a field trip.

"We hope it'll be an opportunity for more kids who maybe don't have an opportunity to ski otherwise to get out there and experience that," she said.

The ski trail is a missing piece in the city's Nordic ski trail offerings, she said. However, there is still a need in the cross-country ski community to help more people access the sport.

"There's no question that we will be looking to our membership and folks who care about cross-country skiing in Duluth to step up and be a part. Perhaps people can volunteer some of their time to help kids learn to ski or programs like that," she said. "Currently, we have some great programs for kids to learn to ski, we have some great programs for adults. But as we look to expand access, we're going to be calling on folks who care about this in the community to come forward and be a part of making that possible."

Horse trails

Equestrians have few trail options in Duluth, but an equestrian trail system is a new official trail use in the corridor, Slade said. The Duluth Area Horse Trail Alliance is hoping an upgraded trail system in the St. Louis River corridor will draw riders to Duluth.

"We really want to see Duluth as a horse trail riding destination, to pull in people from other areas to ride the trails and be an economic boon to the area, too," said DAHTA board member June Breneman.

The DAHTA formed in 2013 to provide funding and maintenance for trails after maintenance issues forced Duluth to close the trails horse riders typically accessed, Breneman said. Designated trails for horses in the Duluth area are limited to a 1-mile multi-use Amity Creek trail and a few multi-use trails in Jay Cooke State Park. However, the small parking area for the park's horse trails makes it difficult for people to park horse trailers there, Breneman said.

The city's St. Louis River Corridor Trails Plan calls for some of the cross-country ski trails in the Magney-Snively trail system to be upgraded to accommodate horse travel during the summers. In total, equestrians will have access to a 3.7-mile loop. The DAHTA is starting raise money for the work, which the city will match.

It's a design challenge because the city wants the trail to exist long-term while adding a new user group to the trail, Slade said. The city doesn't have a trail specifically constructed for horses and he said staff is trying to consider what that will look like going forward.

DAHTA would also like to expand the trails to connect to horse trails in Jay Cooke State Park, to give locals and visitors alike more options for rides. They would also like to see a horse camping spot established somewhere along the trail to help entice equestrians to visit Duluth.

"There's plenty of horse camping opportunities in Minnesota elsewhere, but if we could get that up here in Duluth, people are always looking for new places to go and camp and bring their horses and ride," she said.

Water trail

A water trail on the St. Louis River is a new addition to the city's trails plan. Although the entire St. Louis River is designated as a state water trail, a process began earlier this year to designate the river as a National Water Trail. The designation isn't regulatory but is intended to be the water version of a hiking trail, Johnson said.

A National Water Trail master plan in the works is focusing on canoeists and kayakers, Johnson said, because the river can accommodate more paddlers and because paddling provides more access to the river than motorized boats for people of all income levels.

After decades of pollution, the river has been undergoing a restoration process since the 1980s. There still are impaired waters within the estuary, Johnson noted, and he said it takes an average of 25 years for people to return to an area after it is no longer considered an impaired water. It's hoped that the National Water Trail designation will speed up that process and show people that the river already is clean enough for "vibrant recreational activity," he said.

"Tourism is certainly one idea, but also for the health and vibrancy of those neighborhoods. People who live by the river want to value and feel like they're not living by an impaired resource as well," Johnson said.

Johnson said he likes to remind people, "It's not about us. It's about future generations. It's about my kids and making sure that there is a place for them to go and recreate and value and to steward and there is someone around to steward it in the future as well."

The city will be installing signs and trailheads and ensuring that there are good put-in spots along the river for paddlers, Slade said. Improving the infrastructure will help give boaters a better appreciation of the resources on the water and makes the river experience accessible to a new audience, he said.

"It's definitely a signature piece. We keep talking about the river, the river corridor and all the great views of the river," Slade said. "By good signage, good mapping and a little bit of that infrastructure, we're actually getting people out on the river itself and trying to come up with versions of that that are safe for beginners, good for the intermediate, good for advanced paddlers so people can come to the area and get out in both motorized and nonmotorized boats."

Mountain biking

The plan calls for the multi-use Duluth Traverse to be completed by 2018. About 85 miles of the 100-mile trail has been constructed so far. For Slade, the completion of the Duluth Traverse will be exciting.

"To me, personally, I think building and maintaining trails is one of the greatest things people can do and government can do in a lot of cases. It's real exciting for me to be a part of that, where every couple of months, we have our planning chart and it's like, 'That trail is done, we've built a new trail, what a great thing.' And it's a trail that's sustainable and is going to last a long time and is going to serve a wide range of people," Slade said.

COGGS has been in a "trail-building boom," constructing dozens of trail miles every year for the past several years. In the next few years, COGGS will focus on completing the Duluth Traverse and then shift to trail maintenance, Munch said.

"We've done a great job getting some of these connections built through the neighborhoods and through the parks and now we have a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel where we can see the end is in sight. We want to finish connecting those dots and make the Duluth Traverse one continuous trail across the city," Munch said. "It'll be a totally unique, unprecedented experience to be able to connect an entire city that way so we're really excited to finish off these last little segments."

The building of the mountain bike trail system in Duluth has led to the community rallying around COGGS, he said; people want to be involved as members or by volunteering to help on the trails. COGGS has seen its numbers increase, with paid memberships "skyrocketing" to more than 500 and the annual number of volunteer hours totaling 5,300 hours in 2015, he said.

"The end result of that is, this is me speaking personally, I see so many more new faces, young faces on the trails that I ever have," Munch said. "You can definitely tell as we've put these trails through a lot of neighborhoods and communities that previously didn't really have decent access to mountain biking, they've definitely found out and taken advantage of it."