At the Feb. 8 monthly meeting of the Aitkin County Land Department’s Natural Resources Advisory Committee, Land Commissioner Rich Courtemanche provided an overview of the current 10-year plan and discussed the planned update.
Former Land Commissioners Mark Jacobs and Beth Jacqmain developed the plan with public input and support from other county staff.
“Have we met our goals?” Courtemanche asked rhetorically. “What did we do well?”
The plan has been heavily used and relied upon for guidance; it was not a plan that sat on the shelf. Further development of feedback mechanisms from users; implementation of written monitoring and enforcement plans; interagency and community collaboration and planning; updates to trail system branding, maps, signs, logos, websites and emergency location services to locate people in case of mishaps are some of the benefits that became a reality.
Also among the accomplishments of the past 10 years were the ATV Trail Economic Impact Survey done with the help of Dovetail Partners, the TRAFx ATV counters study and the Campground Revenue Study.
Having a strategic plan was instrumental in the ACLD being awarded grant money, Courtemanche said. Grant applications for trail enhancement and co-existence of motorized and non-motorized recreation on trails were among the successful proposals staff submitted during the plan period, as was ATV trail monitoring and inventory.
With all that successful implementation behind it, updating the plan seemed logical for the ACLD.
Specific action steps are being developed for a dozen recreational opportunities. Among plans for the future, ACLD staff is working to organize day trips on the Mississippi River and expanding and enhancing Long Lake Conservation Center.
A Mississippi River- Mille Lacs Lake Connector trail is a big goal; connecting Malmo, Isle, Glen and possibly Wealthwood.
Equestrian trail development in the Third Guide and Cornish Ridge areas will be pursued.
Water trails enhancement – Mississippi, Snake and Ripple rivers will get attention.
The county also wants to work on expanding existing hunter-walking trails and the feasibility and development of fat tire bike trails.
Establishment of additional primitive campsites and expansion of cross-country ski trails that would utilize sections of existing ATV trails are on the agenda for the next planning period.
Cross-country ski trails will be expanded to accommodate skate-skiers as well as Nordic skiing. Courtemanche spoke about how the county has drawn attention to this Aitkin County resource by working on its branding as a destination for various recreational trail resources.
NRAC member Anne Marcotte questioned the lack of promotion for Aitkin County’s recreational resources since County Economic Coordinator Ross Wagner retired in 2020. Minnesota Off-Road magazine, for example, used to carry advertising about Aitkin County’s trail systems. Committee members agreed that someone should be tagged to take over those responsibilities. The committee passed a resolution asking the county to hire a new Economic Development coordinator to replace Wagner.
Committee member Jim Berg from Palisade asked whether getting more lodging in these recreational areas would be a possibility.
“We need a private enterprise to help develop budget lodging and food and beverage establishments,” he said.
Jessica Perrine asked whether there was continuing contact with local school children after they come to LLCC for their initial session.
“To get more people using these trails, you need parents to introduce their children to them,” said Perrine. Courtemanche responded that 4-H has programs, as does the Aitkin School Distric Community Education program. Perrine would like to have kids and parents continue to use the center routinely throughout the year.
Committee member Bob Marcum, who was one of the committee members joining by WebEx, asked that steps be taken to ensure that people joining online be able to hear the others who are physically together; he suggested microphones. Marcum wants to do a report for LLCC and asked to be on the agenda for next month’s NRAC meeting.
Committee member Galen Tveit expressed the opinion that before the county spends money building new trails, it should do some maintenance on the ATV trail system that is already in place.
Courtemanche said the county is looking to integrate all the technologies is has to provide the best possible information to trail users.
“People want high quality interconnected trails more than we want more miles of trail,” said Tveit. “The majority of class 2 ATVs have more HP than the original Volkswagen car had. We need trails marked where they cross lakes, like they have in Crow Wing County.”
There will be a draft of the revised plan for the committee to review before it goes final, and the new strategic plan will have a public review period, said Courtemanche.
Courtemanche was planning to address the county personnel committee on Feb. 9 to ask about hiring a new director for the environmental learning center.
The LLCC Foundation has offered up some funding to help with salary for a director and an administrative assistant. The Minnesota Association of Environmental Education has been meeting to discuss LLCC’s plan to open for in-person classes resuming in August 2021. LLCC would like to host summer camps, but there is no staff for summer camps. One committee member suggested going back to the way things were done in the early days, with camps being run by volunteers, somewhat like the Forkhorn camps are now. Firearms safety, ATV safety training and trapping are some potential topics.
Courtemanche said that it appears from talking to the ELCs that there is a lot of interest by schools in resuming visits to LLCC. Prices may have to go up to pay for the added cleaning and sanitation that would be required.
Campground fees have been steady at $15 for remote campsites; Berglund Park and Aitkin fees are $20.
“The campground program has been very successful because people are paying and we can meet our maintenance costs. We are planning to keep our rates the same for 2021. These are recreational campgrounds, not suitable for long term stays, which are being requested by some campers,” Courtemanche said.
A WWII reenactment group wanted to close the boat access and the public campground at Jacobson. Crow Wing County does allow that, but Aitkin County campgrounds are transient recreational facilities for the benefit of the public, so County Attorney Jim Ratz recommended not allowing the reenactment group to rent the entire campground. To have public meetings at a county campground, members of the public are required to get permission from Courtemanche or the NRAC. There is no appeal process. The application can be denied for any reason, Courtemanche said.
A new NRAC chair will be elected at the next meeting, to be held at LLCC on Monday, March 8 at 6:30 p.m.