The thorny decision as to whether a popular trail in Duluth's Chester Park should be reserved solely for Nordic skiing during the winter or whether it should instead be shared with pedestrians, including many dog walkers, likely will be made by the Duluth City Council on Monday night.
No matter the choice, 2nd District City Councilor Joel Sipress predicts it's likely to upset many.
"I understand that there is no ideal solution to this, and people have been looking for a solution to this problem for years," he said.
The City Parks and Recreation Commission voted 8-1 in favor of designating the trail for ski-only wintertime use, but Sipress questioned whether people would follow the city's guidance or would continue to walk the path nevertheless. He asked whether the city would be prepared to enforce the restriction on use.
Duluth Parks and Recreation Department Manager Jess Peterson said that putting up clear signs has proven effective elsewhere and pointed to Hartley Park as an example.
"That ski trail system was historically also often traversed by pedestrians and canines. But with an improved signage package, new wayfinding, directional information, and just more information for park users, we have seen an incredible decline in pedestrian use on that ski trail system. And we believe that will be the case in Chester Bowl as well," she said.
The Duluth XC Ski Club has offered to raise funds to help cover the cost of new signs, according to Peterson.
In 2014, the city adopted the Chester Park Mini Master Plan, which included a call to create a shared-use trail for skiers and pedestrian on a trial basis.
However, Peterson said there have been a number of reports of dangerous encounters between fast-moving skiers and pedestrians, sometimes walking dogs off leash. She pointed out that seriously damaged grooming also has posed a hazard to skiers in places.
The council is being forced to make a decision that is decisive by its very nature, in Sipress' eyes.
"The thing that makes this such a hard issue is that there's a conflict of interest between two user groups. And when you have any kind of issue where there's a conflict of interest between two separate interest groups, those become the most difficult to resolve, because as Councilor (Arik) Forsman indicated, it's really hard to get a win-win," he said.
"We have to choose one user group or the other — the skier user group or the walker user group — and those are inherently political decisions and among the most difficult decisions any of us have to face, whether we're staff, whether we're parks commissioners or whether we're councilors," Sipress said.
Peterson contends the two user groups would be better served by having separate trails and made the case that the network at Chester is extensive enough to accommodate both.
"We can, in fact, offer meaningful winter use in this park for all users, while separating their use to increase satisfaction of use, as well as safety of use," Peterson said. She noted that the proposed designated groomed ski trail in upper Chester Park is 1.8 miles long, leaving another 4.5 miles of trail in upper Chester still available for walking and other uses.
If the loop in question is dedicated exclusively for skiing this winter, Peterson said the city may be able to groom it for both skate and classic skiers. As a shared trail, there has been enough room only to groom a skate deck. Peterson said the Chester Park trail is the only groomed ski trail in the city where winter walking has been allowed.
In that respect, "This trail is an outlier," Noah Schuchman, Duluth's chief administrative officer, said.
To ask that pedestrians refrain from walking a groomed ski trail at Chester is not an unreasonable request in Schuchman's eyes.
"We ask people throughout the city, whether they are residents or visitors, to abide by rules in the parks in other parts of the city. And this is the one area in which we do not do that," he said.