Some users of the county's largest park say plans for a 6.5-mile paved trail would detract from its beauty.
Paved trails are popular, well-used and in demand as park amenities. But in Dakota County, new trail construction has sparked some surprising resistance recently.
Dodge Nature Center in West St. Paul stopped the North Urban Regional Trail from running through one of its nature areas. And the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan School District initially was cool to the idea of giving up land for the same trail.
Now a group of Lebanon Hills Regional Park users — who treasure the natural features and open spaces of the park — is making a don't-pave-paradise argument against the construction of a 6.5-mile paved trail there.
"In years going forward, as land around us becomes more and more developed, you can't help but feel people will crave undeveloped, natural space and that's what Lebanon Hills will provide," said Holly Jenkins, an Eagan resident who lives about a mile from the park and visits it regularly with her children.
The county responds that it's trying to balance pure nature with recreational opportunities and open the park up to a wider variety of uses.
Jenkins organized a group of about eight people, most of them Eagan residents, whom she describes as passionate park users, to challenge the county's park plan.
The group points out that Eagan has lost a lot of open green space. "In 10 years we have lost two golf courses and a horse ranch, but at least we still have Lebanon Hills,'' Jenkins said. "You walk into the park and within two minutes you feel you are in the wilderness."
Jenkins counts herself a "huge fan of bike trails." "I bike all the time," she said.
But she thinks the county has enough trails now. "If you pave everything, you will have lost the natural open spaces. We love those too. Where are we going to go to get those natural spaces if there are trails everywhere?"
Lebanon Hills, a hilly 1,842 acres in Eagan and Apple Valley, is the county's largest and busiest park, accounting for more than half of county park use.
The park has a campground and a beach and 19 miles of unpaved trails, as well as less than a mile of paved walkways near the visitors center. A draft master plan for park improvements is scheduled to be released for public review in July and possible adoption by the County Board later this year.
The proposed plan includes a 6.5-mile paved trail running east to west through the park for biking, walking and skating.
A paved trail would boost park patronage by giving park visitors more to do and providing connections between features, county officials say.
"Our poor campers, they get here with the family and their bikes and there is no place to go," said Katie Pata, park operations coordinator. "I think it's going to be a nice amenity for people we are not currently serving."
County Parks Director Steve Sullivan has heard the concerns from Jenkins' group. His reaction is that the county always considers recreation and preservation in park development.
"There is a balancing act between recreation and preservation. This is a traditional discussion that goes back to Yellowstone [National Park]," Sullivan said.
Paving a 6.5 mile trail, along with a 2-mile paved loop around one of the park lakes, is not much paving in a park this large, and by comparison, the master plan has 24.5 miles of unpaved trails, Sullivan said. The paved trails would provide four-season recreation.
A paved trail at Lebanon Hills would make it a location where bikers could park, use restrooms and connect with the county's 200 miles of paved greenway trails, Sullivan said.
Although Lebanon Hills is a regional park and not a park preserve, the county is planning to leave much of it as open space to be sensitive to hikers who may want to be out of view of the paved trail activity, Sullivan said.
"The unfortunate thing is that the park can't be everything to everyone," Sullivan said. "There are choices that have to be made. We are trying to do it in a transparent way."
Jenkins concedes that a paved trail would bring more people to the park. But she thinks the county could get similar results by advertising the park's quiet open space.
"I feel like the park is at a fork in the road where they can go the route of developing the park or they can conserve it," Jenkins said.