Washington County commissioners took a walk into the future last week, voting to spend $1 million to help buy the old Minnesota Zephyr railbed for use as a state trail.

"We're going to look back someday and be very thankful that we moved forward," board Chairman Gary Kriesel said of the county's investment in the new Browns Creek State Trail that will stretch from Stillwater to the neighboring city of Grant.

The commissioners, who voted 5-0 in favor of the purchase, spoke of their responsibility to conserve land for public use. Money will come from the voter-approved Land and Water Legacy program, which allows commissioners to spend $20 million to protect green spaces from development.

The county's portion will supplement another $3.2 million the Legislature approved in the summer to allow the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to buy the route that the Zephyr dinner train followed for 23 years. The new trail, which will be ready for hikers and cyclists next year, will connect to the popular Gateway State Trail in Grant.

"This is just a great amenity for the public as well as protecting a great trout stream," Kriesel said of Browns Creek on the north end of Stillwater.

Jane Harper, who handles the county's Legacy planning, said new trail someday could connect to a regional trail that would follow the St. Croix River south through Afton and Denmark Township to Hastings. The 5.9-mile Browns Creek purchase was envisioned years ago when the county decided on several green space priorities, she said.

To date, including the Browns Creek investment, the county has spent $3.6 million in Legacy funds.

Woodbury resident Bob Tatreau protested the Browns Creek expenditure during Tuesday's board meeting. He acknowledged that the trail would be a wonderful economic benefit to Stillwater, but he said the United States is "going broke" and questioned how commissioners planned to pay for the trail.

Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek pointed out that Washington County voters in 2006 overwhelmingly approved the Land and Water Legacy referendum and said it was the county's responsibility to act on those wishes. Thus far, the county has issued $5 million in bonds to cover the costs.

Commissioner Lisa Weik said the board has been "judicious" with the money.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037