Dozens of public officials are racing to mediate a dispute between snowmobilers and neighbors over access to a major regional park in Scott County, knowing that it may all soon be moot and at best will be no more than temporary.
Two solutions emerged at a conclave on Saturday bringing together both sides. But each politely prefers a different one.
The perceived threat of walkers being ticketed for using a trail into Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve that they’ve used for decades led this winter to a petition drive. Scores of neighbors, primarily on the Lakeville side of the Scott/Dakota border, said it made no sense to drive miles to a different access point when they seldom see snowmobiles on the trail near their homes.
It emerged at the weekend meeting, though, that multiple levels of government forbid walkers from snowmobile trails, even if that seems to have gone unenforced more or less forever.
“How many people have been injured on these trails?” asked Rota Hart, who has led the petition drive.
“As far as we know, no one,” said parks manager Mark Themig.
“Well then,” she said, kidding, “let’s not act until a slew of people get hurt.” There was laughter and a cry of “prevention!”
Lurking behind the issue is the question of what is the countryside, and therefore open season for snowmobiles, and how suburbs gradually encroach to the point that more urban rules start to apply.
At this point, Themig said, he sees Prior Lake as “motor sports-friendly,” but closer-in Savage and Shakopee as more of a question mark.
Saturday’s 90-minute session turned out to be an object lesson in the difficulties of mixing uses on park trails amid neighborhoods, whether it’s yippy lapdogs startling statuesque horses or snowmobilers exercising their legal right to roar past peoples’ homes in the middle of the night, waking them up.
Themig did say that vigorous action is being taken — both in terms of signage and patrols — to stop the potentially destructive off-trail use of the park reserve that turned up on a tour not long ago.
The park is overseen by the Three Rivers Park District, based in Hennepin County, whose board granted Themig and his local colleagues authority to find an interim solution until the board itself can determine a permanent one later this year.
Officials acted rapidly because snowmobile use might not last much longer this year. The forecast for the next weeek or so predicts highs in the mid-30s to low-40s, and the snow could start to melt fast.
The two proposed interim solutions were labeled “Option A: Reroute snowmobile trail” and “Option B: Mixed use trail.”
Neighbors who live around Orchard Lake objected to the reroute, saying it deprived them of a loop around the park’s own Minnregs Lake that has been the prettiest part of their winter walks.
The issue now goes to the Scott County parks advisory commission this week.
Neighbors spoke lyrically about the experience offered by trails so close to their homes. “I can go out the back door and into a park experience where there is solitude and quietness and hear and watch birds, and walk through the park like I’m alone in the world,” said Hart. “A pristine experience in our busy lives, with all the noise that comes at you daily, here is a quiet restful place to rejuvenate and enjoy the world.”
Neighbor Keith Dobbs said it is actually mountain bikers — rolling along faster than snowmobiles at times, only “quieter than a Prius” — who can pose the greater danger.
“Everyone irritates someone,” he said, “but I’m hoping we can get along.”
Snowmobiler Terry Hutchinson said neighbors shouldn’t blame enforcement on the enforcers but on the laws “that we all have to follow, and unfortunately the law says no non-motorized traffic on snowmobile trails, including horses, from Dec. 1 to April 1. We are taxpayers like everyone else and have the right to use public lands and parks.”
He and law enforcement officials alike urged neighbors to use a tip line — 952-440-1003 — to report any abuse. “We will chase snowmobilers right to their house,” he said.
Themig asked the crowd to “please follow the rules until we change them, OK? We will move quickly on this. The snow may go fast and the issue goes away, but the best long-term solution is still an important question.”