A dispute that began with walkers being warned away ended up leaving riders on the defensive.
An uneasy compromise has been reached in a tussle that erupted last winter over snowmobiling and parks in Scott County.
A group of people accustomed to taking cold-weather walks in Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve, along the county’s eastern edge, began to be warned off of using it because it was for snowmobilers.
Their objections to being evicted, however, led to a slow peeling-back of layers of information which in the end put the snowmobilers on the defensive. Questions began to be raised about both the damage caused by the machines and about the need for the link in the first place.
This winter, a new “shared use” agreement has been reached — but it leaves both sides wary as well as pleased.
Rota Hart, a leader of the informal group of neighbors, says she’s happy.
So far this winter, she said, “No problem! It was fun to see the signs up saying ‘shared trail,’ with both snowmobilers and walkers shown. That was really, ‘Hey, something good came out of it’ and it was a good feeling. They listened to the guy with no snowmobile. It did work.”
On the other hand, she said, the concerns hikers raised about damage to the park from the big machines straying from the trails have not gone away.
“People do take liberties and go all over and don’t adhere to signs,” she said, “and that is the case this year again. It’s not my concern, it’s for the parks department to enforce, but I do see people not sticking with the trails.”
The fact that Murphy Hanrehan is a “park reserve” makes that all the more worrisome. The park is not mainly for recreation but to preserve natural resources.
But Mark Themig, the county’s top parks staffer, said the authorities are now vividly aware of the issue, as is the snowmobiling community, and both are on the alert.
“We’ve been monitoring trail use, as has the sheriff’s office, and we’re taking a ‘no-excuse’ approach to enforcement,” he said. “If we catch you off the trail you will be ticketed with no leniency.
“The snowmobile club has taken a leadership role and put up a series of Burma-Shave-style signs that are really cool. As you travel the trail you see a series of signs that warn you, if you do not follow the trail, you will lose this right. It’s a very creative approach and a nice message. The club’s leaders are trying to make sure that the 1 percent who don’t follow the rules get back in line.”
It had been believed before the controversy arose that the spur leading into the park from Orchard Lake, in Lake- ville, was a vital link to Dakota County’s system of snowmobile trails.
As Scott County folks pored over maps during a public meeting last winter, though, it emerged that this wasn’t really true — a fact that weakened the case for snowmobile access to exist at all.
Moreover, parks officials inspecting the trail one day last winter in the company of leading snowmobilers came across tracks that shocked them all.
Snowmobilers were using grassy hills as jumping points, ripping through stretches of prairie in ways that brought them at times down to the dirt. “Unreal,” someone muttered, and others added: “This is a zoo!” “I’ve never seen it this extreme.” “It’s playtime out here, and it’s bad.”
A consultation by the Three Rivers Park District with both snowmobilers and non-motorized parks users last summer turned up both denials from the former that any lasting damage is ever caused, and accusations from the latter that that’s nonsense.
“In no way do they harm the environment at all,” an unnamed snowmobiler wrote in an online forum. “Study after study has shown this.”
But others offered differing views.
“Too many snowmobilers go off the trails and damage vegetation where they go,” one person wrote. “Also, snowmobiles disturb natural movements of small mammals and the noise disturbs other species.”
A Hennepin County park neighbor added:
“Seriously — have you ever watched these people operate? I live right across the street from Elm Creek park on the northwest edge. I am especially grateful when the stewards of the environment go racing through my front yard.”
Three Rivers emerged from that process with a series of outcomes affecting not only Scott but its whole system, Themig said. Among the key points:
• “The board felt we need to preserve existing snowmobiling opportunities because it’s working well” for the most part.
• No longer is there to be annual board approval to renew use of snowmobile trails, putting their future into question all the time and casting a cloud over longer-term plans.
“Unless there’s a major change, it will be handled administratively.”
• A policy was changed to allow situations like the one at Orchard Lake where there’s a connection not to trails but to a boat launch used as a park-and-ride.
• “The board adopted a concept of limited shared use of certain trails like the one at Murphy Hanrehan, along with strong enforcement of rules.”
David Peterson • 952-746-3285