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Duluth Area Trails Alliance takes shape

If Andy Holak has his way, Duluth will forever be known as "The Trail City of the North." Holak is the man responsible for the Duluth Area Trails Alliance, and, at least this time around, his group is hitting the ground running. "We want to conne...

If Andy Holak has his way, Duluth will forever be known as "The Trail City of the North."

Holak is the man responsible for the Duluth Area Trails Alliance, and, at least this time around, his group is hitting the ground running.

"We want to connect our city up with trails," he said. "We have a great trail system already, but we want to make it even better.

"The big thing we want to do is make trails more accessible."

The group's predecessor, the Lake Superior Sustainable Trails Alliance, was formed in the fall of 2005 after the success of the Superior Hiking Trail coming through town.

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"It created a lot of energy and excitement for trails in Duluth," Holak said of that trail system's estimated 300 volunteers, "and so we wanted to build on that and provide an organization that can build and maintain trails."

But Holak and crew really didn't fully mobilize until late last year.

"It seems like every meeting we have, we have a new dynamic person that gets involved who kind of gets things going," he said of DATA's monthly meetings. "It seems like this group is really starting to get a life of its own."

Although the name has changed, one of the cornerstones of Holak's mission remains sustainability -- referring both to alternate modes of transportation and the construction of Duluth's "greenways."

"If you build a trail right, you can almost make it maintenance-free," he said. (It should also be noted that, in addition to holding a forest recreation specialist position with the county, Holak has started up a small trail contracting business.)

As a testament to the group's continued growth, DATA recently announced its board of directors, which includes such noteworthy trail enthusiasts as Judy Gibbs, Will Munger and Eric Viken.

DATA's board members and volunteers represent a large number of trail-use groups, from Cyclists of Gitchee Gummee Shores to Duluth Cross Country Ski Club. Holak said he wants his group to be seen as a sort of "umbrella group" to advocate for all the different non-motorized groups.

"When we first started, I was a little bit concerned because we had a lot of Superior Hiking Trail people involved, and I didn't want to be looked at as just 'the hiking trail group,'" he explained. "I know that there's a little bit of tension between the Superior Hiking Trail folks and the mountain bikers in the city because the trail was put in some areas where there are traditional mountain bike trails.

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"What I'd like to see the Alliance do - and I really want 'alliance' to mean something - is to help all the groups kind of move in the right direction, and iron out some of the issues they might have with each other."

One of DATA's biggest priorities is facilitating sustainable commuting.

"We want to have an off-street trail within 10 minutes of every house in Duluth," Holak said. "Superior Hiking Trail provides a nice backbone, but we want to bring all the trails up and connect into that."

He said doing this will have numerous benefits -- providing trails to the area's schools, for instance, will help curb childhood obesity.

Mayor Herb Bergson is a firm believer in the health benefits of ready access to Duluth's trails.

"We are now a 'fit city,' so everyone here should use the finest hiking trails in the state of Minnesota," he said enthusiastically. "I have lost 22 pounds in the last five weeks, and one of the changes I made was a daily walk."

Bergson continued by saying the hikes on the Superior Hiking Trail are more fun than anywhere else on Earth, and that DATA's plan to have access to a trail within 10 minutes from every household is "very realistic."

"I am about 50 feet from the Superior Hiking Trail, and I am an addict," said the mayor, who developed his own link trail to it with his sons.

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Other DATA concerns

Holak also wants to convert centuries-old trails on tax-forfeit land into official ones so the county won't be so inclined to sell those parcels.

"If the county sells a tax-forfeit land to developers to develop into a housing complex, the public has given up something really significant -- the right to use that land -- and so whoever gets that land should provide something in return to the public," he said. "We're not anti-development, but we want to make sure ... there's always going to be legitimate corridors to maintain these connections between our neighborhoods."

Although still in its infancy, Holak has grandiose plans for DATA and the region's -- yes, region's -- trails.

While securing connections between Duluth's neighborhoods and providing more paved, multiuse (and handicap-accessible) trails for the city is important to him, so is linking up the outlying cities' trail systems.

"If there's a trail there, people are going to use it," Holak said of his group's all-inclusive master plan. "If you have to get in your car and drive there to go for a walk, you're not going to use it very often.

"But if you can walk out your door and go two blocks to a trail, you're going to use it."

For more on the Duluth Area Trails Alliance, visit http://datadirt.wordpress.com .

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