At age 71, after half a century in America, Rota Hart is leading her very first civic uprising.
She has gathered close to 100 signatures from neighbors saying it is absurd that they’re being threatened with tickets for walking on a trail leading into Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve, located right across the street from their homes west of Lakeville, just because people on snowmobiles also use it.
“In Europe you can walk anywhere. They want you to walk in the woods and enjoy nature,” the Vienna-born resident of Lakeville says. “I come to this huge America, and I can’t walk in the woods? It doesn’t seem right.”
The dispute reflects the frequent tension between the desires of residents on the semirural metro fringe, who say they want to enjoy the nature around them, and those of snowmobile users, who say they want the same thing.
Both sides in this situation say they’ve been coexisting for years. Both seem confused about what the problem is. But the Three Rivers Park District, which oversees Scott County’s parks, worries that it isn’t safe for huge high-speed machines and often elderly walkers to be out in the same lanes, sometimes with little warning of one another’s presence.
Signs went up this winter, and people began to be stopped and warned.
“I don’t know why they took away that we can walk in the park,” Hart said. “For a nature lover it’s a real downer.” The alternative is sidewalk-less roads, she added, “and people don’t want to spend time with cars, they want to spend time contemplating quietness.”
Gathering signatures, Hart recorded responses from snowmobilers insisting it can all work for both sides and from others who want the big machines banned. Wrote Vicki Steffan: “No snowmobiles on park trails at all! Ride next to the road.”
Indeed, Hart’s husband, Ken, wonders why snowmobiles are allowed at all on a piece of public property designed to shelter delicate habitat for birds and other species.
Sorting out the problem
The sudden upswell of ill feelings brought Mark Themig, Scott County’s top parks official, out to the vast park reserve in bitter cold on Wednesday afternoon, accompanied by two other parks professionals and two leaders of the snowmobiling groups that help groom and mark off hundreds of miles of trails.
Roaring across the landscape in a convoy, they spotted at once a scene that left them all aghast.
Snowmobilers who are supposed to just be passing through are instead veering off the trail they are warned to stick to and using a series of grassy hills as jumping points. They are ripping through stretches of prairie and churning at times right down to bare dirt.
The verdict was unanimous, though each man had his own way of putting it. “Unreal.” “This is a zoo!” “I’ve never seen it this extreme.” “It’s playtime out here, and it’s bad.”
Standing at the highest, chilliest peak, they took out aerial maps and began to talk about how to bring order to the mess — and the conflicts between users. They debated the merits of differing ways of solving the problem. Split the trail? Reroute the machines?
Walkers treasure their trails, but a love of nature is also what brings many snowmobilers out into rural Scott County, said Kim Werkmeister of rural Shakopee, who’s active with the snowmobiling groups that organize the trails. “One minute you’re in woods, then it’s a lake, then it’s prairie, or a river valley — it’s wonderful country for us.”
After well over an hour of inspection and debate, the group reached some tentative conclusions, subject to discussions with natural resources staff at the parks office and a meeting they want to set up next month with users of both types.
Themig looked satisfied, for now, saying with a wry smile as he looked up from the maps: “Everything always gets solved on the tailgate of a truck.”
The key, Rota Hart said, is that “common sense should prevail. Maybe there is room for both of us. But I don’t like to dodge cars if I can. I like to enjoy nature.”