Two chapters of Audubon Minnesota, one of the state's leading conservation groups, have joined the opposition to paved bike-walking trails at Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan and Apple Valley, adding weight to a passionate and growing public campaign to scale back the proposed development plan for the park.

Lebanon Hills, with its 1,842 acres of forests, grasslands, marshes and wetlands, is a prime example of the bird and wildlife habitats Audubon works to protect, said Lois Norrgard, representing the Minnesota River Valley chapter, based in Bloomington. "We lead many birding field trips in Lebanon Hills throughout the year and have many avid supporters and users of this park in our membership," Norrgard said.

"One of Audubon's members has identified 133 species of birds at Lebanon Hills. These sightings include rare species such as the Hooded Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Summer Tanager and Yellow-breasted Chat," she said.

Norrgard's remarks, which were endorsed by the St. Paul Audubon Society, were made as part of the open public comment period on the proposed master plan for the park. It is under consideration now by Dakota County commissioners. It must be approved and forwarded to the Metropolitan Council if the park is to be eligible for state and regional park development funding.

The plan proposes paving a 6.5-mile trail through the park along with 1.5 miles of paved loops around two of the park lakes. The county parks staffers have said the paved trail would add popular activities — running, walking and biking — to the park year-round. The plan also calls for 24.5 miles of unpaved trails.

"We are concerned regarding the construction and unnecessary spending that has been proposed for Lebanon Hills with an unbalanced and expensive focus on developed trails and infrastructure," Norrgard said. "Adding and paving trails, buildings and parking lots increases forest fragmentation. Fragmentation is one of the leading causes of songbird habitat impact and songbird population decline."

Feb. 11 meeting

County commissioners are scheduled to discuss the plan again on Feb. 11 in their Physical Development Committee meeting. They will consider moving the proposed trail to a route along the perimeter of the park rather than through the park as originally proposed.

The county staff had routed the trail through parkland that had once been used for farms and pastures, but many members of the public objected to its going through the heart of the park.

Commissioners will also decide how to respond to comments and suggestions like those from Audubon that were received in two public open houses attended by more than 350 people.

Norrgard said paving a trail around the park's lakes "will only degrade the quality of the lake by adding a conduit for runoff and add to the erosion problems." Other metro lakes encircled by pavement are declining and have major problems with erosion, algae blooms, and sedimentation, she said. "These lakes are unsightly, sometimes smelly, and do not provide healthy habitat for waterfowl, or other birds and wildlife.

"We urge the Dakota County Parks and Board of Commissioners to carefully evaluate whether paving trails around any of the lakes is prudent."

County's goal

Kurt Chatfield, planning supervisor for the county, said that the loops around the lakes would not be right at the shoreline and that the county's goal would be to have water spilling off the trail filter into the soil rather than go directly into the lake.

Permeable pavement and a crushed-gravel trail would allow water to filter through to the soil, and both will be among suggestions from the public that will be reported to the board, Chatfield said.

The Audubon chapters urged the county to restore habitat for animals, remove invasive species and show restraint in development.

"All around us, green spaces, our birds and other wildlife habitats are being encroached upon by our growing populations and subsequent development," Norrgard said. "There are fewer and fewer places we can go to escape the noise and disturbance, unnatural hard-packed surfaces, and sights and sounds of the city. Lebanon Hills is one of the few gems where this solace can still be found for our residents."

Holly Jenkins, an Eagan resident and a leader of the Wilderness in the City group that has organized opposition to the paved trail, said the Audubon comments give credibility to the concerns expressed by the group.

"It's not just people making this up," she said.

What the group is hoping for now is that the county will bring user groups to the discussion before making a final decision on the plan. Jenkins said she would expect a compromise to emerge if user groups were represented. In the 2001 master plan for the park, 13 user groups were involved, she said.