Trail development is economic development

A group of cyclists ride cross the Highway 53 bridge during the Great River Energy - Mesabi Trail Tour.

Editor’s Note: The Hibbing Daily Tribune and Mesabi Daily News offers part three of a six-part series celebrating National Travel and Tourism Week.

Bob Lincoln says the 190 Tour of Minnesota bicyclists who ride the Mesabi Trail in mid-June will spend more than just energy.

They’ll spend money.

“Our goals are to visit small towns, out-of-the-way vistas, experience the heritage and culture, and to bring economic development,” said Lincoln, ride director for Tour of Minnesota. “I will tell you, our riders spend money.”

Bicyclists from the Midwest and as far as Idaho, California, Florida and New York, will pedal 297 miles from Grand Rapids to Ely and back on the Mesabi Trail and local roads during the June 14-21 tour.

Riders will spend $10,000 to $20,000 a day at local businesses on lodging, meals, and shopping, Lincoln said.

“Last year, on our day off in Alexandria, the merchants offered free shipping for anything our riders purchased on the tour,” Lincoln added. “They also had a bus for us that went on a loop to shopping areas, restaurants and bars.”

Trails – both motorized and non-motorized – is big business on the Iron Range.

Built largely on former mineland, the Iron Range’s bicycle, mountain bike and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) trails are major travel and tourism attractions for those who love two and four wheels.

“Trail development provides additional opportunities for residents as well as tourists,” said Linda Johnson, Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation director of Mining & Property Development. “It’s quality of life and repurposing what we have here.”

Beyond ATV and bike trails, northeastern Minnesota’s snowmobile trails, cross country ski, and snowshoe trails, also attract thousands of travelers and tourists.

“Trails are a good way for people to experience nature, whether you’re on a bike or cruising on a four-wheeler,” said Beth Pierce, executive director of the Iron Range Tourism Bureau. “If you spend enough time in the woods, you’re going to see some cool things.”

For decades, inactive mineland owned by various mining interests, went largely unused.

But with the rapid growth of ATV riding and bicycling, trail development on mineland across the Iron Range has exploded.

“Every trail is on mineland,” said Pierce, who helps lead a Northern St. Louis County Trails Task Force composed of representatives from trails groups, along with local and state government entities. “It does provide a unique experience by being able to be next to a mine pit.”

When the first stretch of the 128-mile long Mesabi Trail multi-use recreational trail opened in 1996, it jump started a new wave of bike-based tourism. From Grand Rapids to Biwabik, much of the Mesabi Trail is built on mineland.

Last year, digital counters along the trail racked up 122,000 trail users. In 2019, a count of 250,000 users is projected.

“I can’t tell you how great the mining companies have been to work with,” said Bob Manzoline, executive director of the St. Louis & Lake Counties Regional Railroad Authority, which oversees operation of the trail. “This trail wouldn’t be here without their participation.”

Three major events attracting nearly 1,000 bicyclists this summer take to the Mesabi Trail: The Tour of Minnesota; a June 14-19 Habitat for Humanity ride; and the August 3 Great River Energy - Mesabi Trail Tour.

Each year, 40-45% of Great River Energy - Mesabi Trail Tour riders are new to the ride, said Ardy Nurmi-Wilberg, executive director of Club Mesabi, an Iron Range bicycle group.

“I think it’s brought an awareness to how amazing this area is,” said Nurmi-Wilberg of the trail. “It’s brought people here and showed them how great our communities are and how welcoming our people are. It’s a quality of life thing, not just in bringing visitors up here, but providing a quality of life experience for our residents.”

Mountain bike trail development is also climbing rapidly.

Development of 10-12 miles of mountain bike trails at Giants Ridge, existing trails at Lookout Mountain north of Virginia and Maple Hill in Hibbing, along with 30 miles of trail planned at the Tioga Recreational Area, a former mining site in Cohasset, are aimed at making the Iron Range a mountain bike mecca.

The Redhead Mountain Bike Park, 25 miles of single-track mountain bike trails at the former Pillsbury-Leonard-Burt-Monroe-Dunwoody mine pits adjacent to Minnesota Discovery Center, is in development by the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation.

Along with the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, local communities, area trail clubs, the state, and regional legislators, are working collaboratively to develop trails of all types.

Investments to expand northeastern Minnesota trail systems has in recent years been huge.

The Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation within the last two years invested $4.95 million for the Giants Ridge, Tioga and Redhead mountain bike projects. Another $3.4 million – mostly for ATV trail development - was awarded for other ATV, mountain bike, bike, hiking and Nordic ski trail projects within the agency’s 13,000 square-mile service area. That’s not counting investments in the same projects from local clubs, communities, counties, the state, or federal government.

For ATV riders, trail expansion across northeastern Minnesota is accelerating rapidly.

In 2002, when the Iron Range Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area (OHVRA) opened in Gilbert, the 1,200-acre site helped rev up ATV trail development across the region.

About 5,000 vehicles use the 1,200-acre area annually, according to Allen Larsen, Iron Range OHVRA operations supervisor. A large portion of visitors are from the Twin Cities area, though some have come from as far as Florida and Oregon, said Larsen.

The first phase of a 2,700-acre OHVRA expansion between Gilbert and Virginia, is set to open by the end of summer, said Larsen.

The popularity of ATV riding is reflected in statewide ATV registrations. Over the last 20 years, registrations have more than tripled to 304,384 in 2018 from 93,824 in 1998, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. In 1984, as far back as DNR records go, there were 12,235 ATVs registered in the state.

“I think ATV trails are getting built like crazy,” Pierce said. “People are realizing that ATVs have a lot longer season and have more uses other than just hauling an ice house onto a lake. There’s a lot of competition for ATV trails and we already have a lot of ATV trails in place.”

A St. Louis County ordinance allowing the operation of all-terrain vehicles on all county roads outside city limits, has been a huge boost, allowing ATV riders to connect to trails.

ATV riding, including four-wheelers and utility task vehicles (known as UTVs or side-by-sides), has grown to become a social activity as much as a way to enjoy nature or perform utility work at home. Increasingly, trails are being designed to connect dozens of northeastern Minnesota communities.

On April 27, the Crane Lake-based Voyageur Country ATV Club staged its spring ride and club fundraiser. Much of the Voyageur trail system is on old logging roads, forest roads and county roads.

“We were kind of dreaming big that we might have 200 people,” said Bruce Beste, a board member of the club. “We planned four different ride routes because of the amount of people we expected. We ended up with 180 machines and almost 300 people.”

ATV enthusiasts came from as far as the Twin Cities, Rochester, Pengilly, and Carlton County, said Beste.

“A lot of people came up and spent their money,” Beste said. “We have 220 miles of a mapped and signed trail system that runs from Crane Lake to Cusson and Orr and all the way to Cook and Ely. One of the things the development of trails is doing is giving people a place to ride and the folks who work in the resorts who are waitresses, cabin people, or bartenders, have had their work expanded into the shoulder seasons because of ATV trails. The trail system is working.”

Gretchen Janssen, owner of Voyagaire Lodge & Houseboats in Crane Lake, says businesses are experiencing an economic boost from ATV riders.

“I think word is out about beautiful Crane Lake in the summertime as long as you have a boat,” Janssen said. “But ATVs are going to provide you with another activity to be outside in September or October. The shoulder season is when we will benefit.”

Master plans are in place to expand Voyageur Country ATV Club trails to a total of 538 miles, said Beste.

“Starting next week, we’re building a trail (bridge) over the Vermilion River,” said Beste. “It’s a $1.3 million project. We expect it to be in by September 20.”

On Sept, 20-22, the club hosts the annual ATV Association of Minnesota (ATVAM) ride and rally. Initially, about 300 riders were expected to participate. However, organizers are hearing there could be two or three times that amount, says Ron Potter of rural Ely, ATVAM president.

“We’re in close connection with each other,” Potter said of area ATV clubs. “With the system we have, we have over 1,000 miles of riding. We’re all building individual systems, but we’re also working together and hope to have a system from Grand Marais to Grand Rapids and from International Falls to the Quad Cities in place. There’s a lot of excitement about new riding opportunities and it seems like whenever there’s a ride, it turns into a big ride.”

Northeastern Minnesota legislators are firm supporters of trail development. Several pieces of legislation to advance trail development in the region are on the table at 2019 Minnesota Legislature.

“They’ve given us great support,” said Pierce. “They realize that trail development is economic development. It’s good for the people here and the people who come here. It’s cool and fun to be able to show others our part of the state and for them to go back and say, “It’s awesome there and the people are awesome there’.”

Potter says the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, legislators, U.S. Forest Service, counties, communities, and the tourism industry are showing strong support for ATV trail development.

“The IRRRB has been a lifesaver with what they’ve done and the U.S. Forest Service has been incredible to work with,” said Potter. “The communities and the tourism industry are behind us. They’re seeing a tremendous boost to their shoulder seasons.”

State lawmakers, counties, communities, and businesses are all realizing the benefits of the growing network of ATV trails, said Beste.

“They (state officials) are fired up to help our industry grow,” said Beste. “They don’t want to fall behind Wisconsin or Michigan, so that’s very exciting.”

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