Air Force Reserve officials say that practice bomb disposal is too dangerous to be near hikers and bikers, putting plans for a trail in flux.
The long-planned Minnesota Valley State Trail that would stretch from Fort Snelling through the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge has run into a rather noisy roadblock.
The Air Force Reserve recently told trail supporters that the route needs to be moved because a bomb disposal training site has been added to the reserve's property, making the trail location unsafe because of the potential for flying fragments and unexpected bangs and booms that could frighten hikers and bikers.
"Right now, with the mission requirements that I have down there, the trail would not be in the best interests of public safety," said Col. Darrell Young, commander of the 934th Airlift Wing, which made the decision.
The stance is a blow to the state Department of Natural Resources and to refuge officials, who had finally acquired money to survey and plan the trail route. The state trail, which would run from Fort Snelling to Le Sueur, Minn., was authorized in 1969. Developing the trail between the fort and the Bloomington Ferry Bridge is a high DNR priority.
"It's all in flux now," said Charlie Blair, manager of the refuge. "It is such a critical link, because it's going to connect all the Twin City trails through Minnehaha Creek to the Minnesota River Valley. There really is no other way to get to the river valley unless you cross the Mendota Bridge, and then you have to get back."
The Air Force Reserve site lies between Hwy. 5, Interstate 494 and the Minnesota River. Young notified the DNR late last year that he had concerns about the planned route of the trail. He repeated those concerns last month in a meeting with the DNR, wildlife refuge officials and trail advocates.
Too close for comfort
A natural trail has already been worn by hikers and bikers through the property. Because the land drops steeply from Hwy. 5 toward the river, trespassers walked through the flat Air Force property, where there is an officers' club and a shooting range. Now a 40-by 60-foot concrete pad has been added for bomb disposal training.
Young said use of the pad fluctuates depending on need. He said it would not be practical to build the trail and close it when bomb disposal practice occurs.
"The mission drives when we use that facility," he said.
DNR officials and Blair were surprised by the Air Force's apparent change of heart, because an environmental assessment done when the bomb disposal pad was planned indicated it could coexist with a trail. Young said the realities of the new duties trumped that document.
Trail advocates are disappointed by the Air Force decision.
"I think there's ample room there," said Ed Crozier of Burnsville, part of group that has been pushing for completion of the state trail. "They could put up cautionary signs when they're training."
David Geppner of Richfield, who was at last month's meeting and is on the Hennepin County Bicycle Advisory Committee, said the Air Force property provided the "perfect alignment" for the trail.
"Keeping it in the river valley where it is most pristine is what you want," he said. "We have to keep dreaming, have to be optimistic that there will be a way."
Land swap possible?
Rerouting the trail along the Hwy. 5 right of way owned by the state is impractical because of the steep slope, said Blair and DNR project manager Cindy Wheeler. The DNR, Wheeler said, has been "trying to pull the pieces together and get something to happen. It's close."
The Air Force has "some safety concerns, and we take that very seriously," she said. "We will work with them."
Young said he may be open to a land swap if the DNR could provide an appropriate location for his unit's activities.
"I'm open to discussing that," he said. "We want to be a good neighbor."
Wheeler said the DNR will explore those possibilities.
In February, the Air Force Reserve learned that all eight of its cargo planes are scheduled to be transferred out of the Twin Cities and that the wing's mission will change as part of the Pentagon's plan to draw down forces and cut costs.
Property now owned by the wing, including the land where the proposed trail would run, will be transferred to the Air National Guard.
However, Young said he expects his group to retain responsibility for bomb and ordnance disposal, even though his personnel would be tenants on National Guard property.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan