EAGLES NEST TWP— Residents here are upset over a plan to open an ATV route as early as this month across a series of gravel roads in the township, but it’s not clear what county or …
EAGLES NEST TWP— Residents here are upset over a plan to open an ATV route as early as this month across a series of gravel roads in the township, but it’s not clear what county or township officials can do to head off the plan.
The route would connect a portion of the Taconite Trail between Tower and Ely that is currently off limits to ATVs because it lies within the boundaries of Bear Head State Park. Current state park policy and rules generally prohibit ATV use, although snowmobiles, which primarily operate on frozen ground, are allowed.
The route is being promoted by the Prospector Trail group, which has been instrumental in building the Prospector Loop trail system connecting Ely, Tower, and Babbitt. Trail administrator Ron Potter said the planned route is not ideal, but short of opening up the Taconite Trail through the state park, there really aren’t any good alternatives.
But township residents say they worry the trail, which is attracting significant numbers of off-road riders, will prompt a large increase in ATV traffic, noise, and dust, as well as potential public safety concerns. Those concerns have prompted township officials and representatives of the Eagles Nest Township Lake Owners Association to reach out to county and state officials looking for help in redirecting the ATV traffic elsewhere.
But St. Louis County policy already allows ATV use on county roads located outside of municipal boundaries and most of the roads in question, including Bear Head State Park Road, Walsh Road, and Swanson Shores Road, are county-owned. A segment of Swanson Shores Rd. is township-owned, but town board chair Rich Floyd said it’s not clear how the township would restrict ATV traffic on that segment without also limiting the ability of township residents to use their own ATVs on that portion of road.
Mostly, said Floyd, township residents are concerned that the trail club will publish maps directing ATV riders onto the township roads.
Floyd said an alternative route that would take riders to the south and east of the populated portion of the township could help reduce ATV traffic around the Eagles Nest lakes themselves. But the Prospectors ATV Club will need to complete a stream crossing at the Beaver River in order to allow ATV riders to reconnect with the Taconite Trail near Purvis Lake, located to the east of the state park. Potter said the club already has funding for a new bridge at the river, but the project has been delayed because the club has decided to coordinate the work with the need to reconstruct a nearby snowmobile bridge crossing on the same river. Rather than build two crossings, the snowmobile trail will be re-routed to make use of the ATV crossing, which will need to include hard matting across about 1,000 feet of wetlands in addition to the bridge. The change will require that the bridge be built to a much higher weight standard, Potter noted, in order to accommodate snowmobile trail groomers. Potter said much of the work requires frozen ground, so it’s currently scheduled for this coming winter.
While Potter said the alternative route could siphon some traffic off the township road route, he said it probably goes too far south to really be a practical connection between Tower and Ely. “It would get you there, but it’s almost twice as long,” Potter said. “We still need a northern route.”
Potter said there’s been some talk about allowing use of ATVs along the Taconite Trail through the state park, which would eliminate the need to use county roads in the township. He notes that the current route is in the northern part of the park, well away from most park facilities and hiking trails. “It’s all public land, which makes it easier,” said Potter. While ATV use has long been prohibited in state parks, Potter noted that the Department of Natural Resources has allowed ATV use in a portion of Tettegouche State Park. The DNR also recently accommodated ATV use in a portion of the Lake Vermilion State Park located south of Hwy. 169, by converting its designation to a state recreation area, which allows for ATV use.
A number of township residents indicated they see the proposed routing of ATV traffic through the heart of Eagles Nest as a way to pressure the Legislature and the DNR to allow for the use of the Taconite Trail through the state park.
Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, agreed the proposal looks sensible on a map, but said such a plan would face strong opposition in the Legislature. “It would be a heavy lift,” he said, noting that a recent effort by a GOP lawmaker to open a lightly-used park in northwestern Minnesota to ATV use never advanced. He said he’d be willing to attempt such a solution, but only if it had the full support of local residents in the township.
Ecklund noted that he’s been a strong backer of funding for ATV trails but said there needs to be a more coordinated effort as the state develops trails to prevent a “helter-skelter” approach. He said that’s why he pushed for $250,000 to help draft a statewide ATV master trail plan. “I think that could help fix future Eagles Nest-like problems,” he added. Ecklund said he was surprised to learn during a recent meeting with township officials and County Commissioner Paul McDonald that the Prospector Trail had such a sizable gap. “I helped get the money appropriated but I kind of assume the trail groups are doing their job in putting their plans together,” he said. While county roads are open to ATV use, Ecklund questioned whether that means large stretches should be incorporated into official trail systems.
Ecklund said it’s worth it to take the time to get the trails issue right. “I will continue to work with all the groups to resolve it,” he said. “The ATV use isn’t going away, so we might as well make it work for all of us.”