A state agency is drawing fire for its decision to permanently suspend snowplowing on Minnesota’s busiest state trail.
Twelve miles of the Gateway State Trail will go unplowed as part of a statewide Department of Natural Resources plan to shift resources to “high-use seasons,” said Erika Rivers, the manager of the agency’s parks and trail unit. The Gateway, which stretches from St. Paul to northern Washington County, attracts hundreds of thousands of users a year — including in winter.
Melinda Coleman, Maplewood’s city administrator, said she finds it appalling that taxpayers and city leaders didn’t have a voice in the decision, and said that leaving the trail unplowed is unacceptable.
“This is a regional trail, used by hundreds of people in an urban setting,” Coleman said. “I can’t imagine making that kind of decision, and to not inform us, is really alarming to me. That’s really not good governance.”
A related DNR decision to ban high school ski teams from training at William O’Brien State Park, in Washington County, was under review Tuesday after coaches questioned why the agency had ended a 40-year arrangement.
Phil Leversedge, the deputy director of the parks and trails unit, said teams were notified they no longer could ski in the state park on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays to better accommodate other park users who wanted to ski. As many as 130 team skiers use the trails on weekends “and put a lot of pressure on the system,” he said.
“We didn’t have the resources to recondition the trails after their use on Saturday mornings,” Leversedge said. “This isn’t a new problem. It’s a problem we recognized we needed to address,” he said, as part of the DNR’s new statewide plan that now excludes Gateway plowing.
DNR ‘missed mark’
Leversedge said the DNR “missed the mark in connecting with the ski group” and wanted to reach a resolution in a late Tuesday meeting.
“I’m trying to find the logic in this,” said Kris Hansen, one of three head coaches for the Stillwater Area High School ski team. “Whether 10 people use the ski trail or 500 people use the ski trail, the snow doesn’t get used up.”
The DNR hasn’t been maintaining the trails for at least a couple of years and high school skiers do the work to keep them in good shape, she said. The agency should be encouraging youth to use parks and trails, not excluding them, and targeting high school ski teams is discriminatory, she said.
“I don’t think it’s fair to single out a group of people and say, ‘You can’t use this resource.’ ”
For years, the bustling Gateway trail has attracted cyclists, runners, hikers, skiers and even commuters. The trail took on even more strategic importance last year when the DNR opened the connecting Brown’s Creek State Trail. Brown’s Creek, the state’s newest trail, follows the 5.9-mile corridor once used by the Minnesota Zephyr dinner train from Stillwater to the city of Grant, where it links to the Gateway trail.
Under the new DNR plan, Brown’s Creek won’t be plowed either — unless cities elect to pay for the work.
The city of Stillwater “currently is exploring options” for winter maintenance on the portion of the trail that’s within city limits, said Tom McCarty, the city administrator.
Rivers said the DNR will save about $10,000 a winter by not plowing the first 12 miles of the Gateway trail leading from St. Paul. The final 6 miles — from North St. Paul to where the trail ends at Pine Point Regional Park north of Stillwater — won’t be groomed for skiing as it has been in the past, she said.
“It’s the lowest use time of the year on the Gateway and Brown’s Creek state trails so we’re looking for other ways to provide those services rather than the state providing them,” Rivers said.
‘Strategic’ use of funds
The decision to suspend plowing wasn’t entirely financial, she said, but took into account the proximity of other outdoor recreation areas, managed by cities and counties, that provide similar services.
“We’re being more strategic in how and where we invest funds,” she said, because of demands of maintaining 75 parks and recreation areas and 25 state trails in Minnesota.
Coleman said Maplewood city leaders question why the DNR wouldn’t plow a taxpayer-funded trail and why cities were just finding out about a months-old decision. Coleman said the DNR had sent a letter advising that the city leave the trail unplowed to avoid legal liability. She met Tuesday with a DNR representative to convey her unhappiness.
“I told her, ‘I’ve got to be honest, this doesn’t sound very Minnesotan.’ We have a lot of people relying on the Gateway trail,” Coleman said.
Mark McCabe, who oversees park operations in Ramsey County, said, “We’ve asked the DNR to reconsider.” Not plowing a “fairly major regional trail” could limit public use, he said.
Trail users dismayed
John Oldendorf, of the Gateway-Brown’s Creek Trail Association, said the DNR decision left trail users feeling dismayed.
“An awful lot of people look forward to walking on the plowed portion of the trail,” he said.
In Grant, which has the longest stretch of trail in Washington County, Mayor Tom Carr said he didn’t know the DNR wouldn’t be plowing this winter.
“Communication is lacking,” he said. “We’re not invited to those meetings where they make these decisions.”
Carr said the DNR should consider that people trying to walk on unplowed trails will leave packed, icy surfaces that will remain into spring — when even more people come to walk the trail.
“If we have a lot of calls because people are falling that’s seriously going to affect our city and our costs,” he said.
Rivers, at the DNR, said her agency is trying hard to develop a uniform plan for all of Minnesota’s parks and trails and to smooth out “uneven” funding experienced in the past.
“We are taking stock of where we’re at right now and finding a new path forward, sustainable into the future,” she said.