The bill is just one sentence long. It requires no money. It simply makes two minor, yet important, route adjustments to the North Country National Scenic Trail in northeastern Minnesota (and out east) — changes that hikers, businesses and trail communities are clamoring for. Yet this seemingly innocuous piece of legislation has been stuck in Congress for nearly a decade. The reason? Politics.
“The issue is way, way bigger than our little trail bill,” said Bruce Matthews, recently retired executive director of the North Country Trail Association, the private nonprofit that builds and maintains the trail, largely through volunteers.
Matthews said the bill’s persistent blockage has its roots in the rise of the Tea Party movement and the sentiment among some members of Congress to keep public land out of federal control. Thrown into the mix are persistent misconceptions — and possibly some willful misrepresentations — that the bill gives land to the federal government and will burden the overworked and underfunded National Park Service.
“But there are no dollars involved,” Matthews said. “The National Park Service isn’t acquiring any land. It’s a locally driven, citizen-private business partnership. It’s an example of how the trail should work.”
The North Country Trail (NCT) was conceived decades ago as a way to showcase the diverse landscape of America’s northern tier. Designated a prestigious National Scenic Trail in 1980, legislators approved its estimated 3,200-mile route — the number was a wild guess — which stretched from North Dakota to New York. The following year, the trail association was created to partner with the park service and bring the trail to life.
Fast forward 35 years to the late 2000s. Trail construction was progressing, yet many gaps remained, including one in northeastern Minnesota. Here, the trail was planned to run 100 miles in between the Chippewa National Forest near Remer and Jay Cooke State Park, southwest of Duluth. But that acreage consisted of a rough, unsightly patch of swamp. If hikers were to successfully cross it, volunteers would have to construct an extensive and expensive system of boardwalks.
A more practical and advantageous option was for the NCT to piggyback along the recently created Kekekabic, Border Route and Superior Hiking Trails. The three together unrolled some 500 miles up to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and back down Lake Superior’s North Shore, forming a conical shape instead of a west-east path. These paths in the state’s Arrowhead region were much more scenic, and would require roughly the same amount of new trail (100 to 150 miles) to close the gap between the Kekekebic and the Chippewa National Forest.The trail association was also eyeing another gap in the trail — a 40-mile patch of land separating the eastern terminus in New York with the Appalachian Trail in neighboring Vermont. Why end the path in New York when it could easily hook into America’s most famous long-distance trail?
In 2009, with backing from the trail association, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation to make these two route changes. They were rebuffed then, and in every congressional session since.
Matthews said some legislators look at the current bill (H.R. 1026) and all they see is that the language notes the trail’s length is 4,600 miles, a substantial increase from the original bill’s 3,200 mile guess-timate. “On the surface, it looks like an order of magnitude,” he said. “[Some legislators] say, ‘This is another federal public land steal, so we’re going to oppose it.’ You don’t get time to explain.”
Yet the bill isn’t adding 1,400 miles of trail. It’s simply listing a more accurate estimate of the path’s final length, now that nearly 70 percent of it is built. It also doesn’t require any money or manpower from the financially strapped park service, which is only solely responsible for a tiny slice of the trail anyway.
“The National Park Service owns about three miles of the trail,” said Alexandra Picavet, communications chief for the park service’s Midwest region. She added: “Most of the work done on the trail is being done by our really amazing partners and volunteers.”
That’s not to say no federal dollars go to the trail. The park service currently allocates about $1 million of its $3 billion budget to the North Country Trail. Of that $1 million, about $400,000 goes to the trail association. “With our volunteer time and fundraising, the [North Country Trail Association] matches its federal allocation by six to one,” said Matthews. “That’s a pretty good [return on investment].”
Despite a decade of stagnation, the bill got a small boost in March, when U.S. Reps. Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis, both Republicans from Minnesota, signed on as cosponsors. They joined their six Minnesota House colleagues.
Then, Wednesday, the bill advanced out of the House Natural Resources Committee for the first time. It’s next stop could be the House floor.
The bill likely needs to get attached to other legislation to get voted on, said Matt Davis, NCT regional trail coordinator in Minnesota and North Dakota. “We’ll work to see that the bill gets included to pass the finish line,” he said.
“We would love to see the legislation passed,” said Jo Swanson, development director for the Superior Hiking Trail Association. “The reroute [onto the Superior Hiking Trail] is phenomenal and will show off the best of the state. Everybody wins.”
Added Matthews: “Let us brand it. Let us market it. It’s not going to cost anybody anything. Let us make right what anybody can see ought to be done.”
Melanie Radzicki McManus wrote “Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail.” She lives near Madison, Wis.