Mountain bikers in the Twin Cities boast about the extensive trail networks in Lebanon Hills, Carver Lake Park and Elm Creek Park Reserve. Despite these options, mountain bikers are looking for trails closer to home so they can spend more time riding and less time driving back and forth. And because desire alone won’t help expand the trail system, riders are organizing and collaborating with park managers to build new trails.
“Lakeville is a town of 62,000 people. The city has hundreds of miles of bike trails, but they are all paved bike trails. We needed a place to ride off-road. I knew it would take a lot of work to get something established,” Steven Knowlton, president of Lakeville Cycling Association.
“A handful of avid off-road riders approached the city and asked about building an off-road bike trail. We brought the idea to our parks, recreation and natural resources committee, and they approved the proposal,” said John Hennen, Lakeville’s parks and recreation director.
Added to Lakeville’s budget in 2016, construction of the 5-mile West Lake Marion Park Trail was completed last September. The cycling association raised $37,000 of the $122,000 it cost to build.
“We wanted to create fun, flowing roller-coaster trails that would serve all ages and skill levels. Green for beginners, blue for intermediate and black for advanced. The enthusiasm and support from city park and rec has been excellent,” Knowlton said.
Lakeville isn’t alone. Minnetonka and Edina are working with cycling groups who are asking for expansion of mountain biking trails in their community parks. Minnetonka’s park board approved a study Feb. 7 to determine if Lone Lake Park and part of its 146 acres are a potential site for mountain bike trails.
Ben Marks, with other local mountain bike enthusiasts, formed the Minnetonka Trails Alliance to advocate for a more formal mountain bike trail system. “Over time unofficial trails used by bikers, runners, dog walkers and been created. It became abundantly clear that trails were getting overused. With more use came increasing user conflicts and ecological damage from erosion,” Marks said.
The Minnetonka Trail Alliance worked with the nonprofit Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists (MORC) to learn best practices for working with local governments. “MORC endorsed our project early. They were impressed with our approach and how willing the city was to be involved,” he said.
Edina is evaluating options for the 500-acre Braemar Park. Still developing, a master plan includes Nordic skiing and mountain bike trails.
A volunteer group’s enthusiasm for trail-building can build momentum and energize the process. At times, there can be other stakeholders voicing concerns. Community leaders use outreach initiatives like open houses, clinics and presentations to spread the word and gather feedback.
“It’s hard. Every community is different. The approach we’ve taken is to engage our residents early, often and at every stage in the process. We don’t start master plans with a preconceived notion about what we are going to have in that master plan. We reach out to residents and a variety of user groups and start with what they tell us they would be interested in at the park,” said Ann Kattreh, Edina’s parks & recreation director. “We continue that process until we have a plan that has significant buy-in from residents, parks and recreation commission staff and the City Council.”
Tim Wegner, owner of Trail Source, the commercial builder behind Lakeville’s West Lake Marion project, works with public officials and groups to anticipate concerns before construction begins. “We look at how neighbors are going to be impacted and how to mitigate any situations, like night riding where lights might be shining in their backyards.”
The concept of a new local mountain trail can energize cyclists, but that enthusiasm can fade if the approval process is not understood by everyone.
“Good things take time. As a volunteer organization this is your No. 1 focus. Park districts have a thousand things to focus on and need to balance different appeals,” said Matt Andrews, the executive director of MORC.
Residents who live near potential trails and people who use the park in other ways can challenge plans and raise obstacles. As with any public-private debate, minority positions can have the loudest voices.
“Change is difficult. Minnetonka residents are proud of their parks and take a lot of ownership in their woodlands. No matter where the trails will be ultimately built, someone will be unhappy. It will require some political will by the city to make the final decision,” Marks said.
“A community engagement process is important. We want to make sure people in are community are heard, no matter which way we decide to go,” said Kelly O’Dea, Minnetonka’s recreation director. “As a staff, we were surprised by the amount of feedback we received. There are a lot of people who really care about the parks. Some have concerns and some are trail advocates. We have to do what we feel is best for Minnetonka.”
Planning for the future
The collaborative process of getting a new mountain bike trail approved and built doesn’t stop when the grand opening ribbon is cut. Formal long-terms plans need to be developed, for example, to maintain the mountain bike trails to stop erosion and keep riders safe.
MORC works with land managers, nonprofits and volunteers to craft documents that spell out stakeholders’ responsibilities.
“We need people to remain enthused and invigorated and part of the maintaining process,” Andrews said. “In recent years, we’ve had a big increase in trails but the level and amount of volunteers willing to maintain those trails hasn’t kept up with the pace of miles of trails being built.”
The city of Lakeville and the Lakeville Cycling Association have an maintenance agreement in place.
“Cyclists will rally behind the project. They will help with donations, trail construction and maintenance. That partnership will pay dividends. The (association) will take the lead in many of the maintenance aspects of the trail. The agreement is very hands-on, and there’s some pride of ownership for them,” said Hennen, the city official.
Marks said it’s vital to engage a trail’s advocates.
“Once the trails are built, you need a core group of volunteers to maintain the trails. Volunteers that have a lot of personal investment in the construction will help recruit more volunteers to maintain the trail,” he said.
Lou Dzierzak is a freelance writer from Richfield.