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Happy trail users: A silver lining to all that snow - MessAge Media: Local

Happy trail users: A silver lining to all that snow

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Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2019 11:36 am

Chris Johnson, Recreation Specialist for the Aitkin County Land Department (ACLD) opened the monthly Natural Resources Advisory Committee meeting at Long Lake Conservation Center with a comprehensive report about the many efforts ACLD is engaged in to monitor, evaluate, improve and prioritize the trail systems in the county.

The generic term “trails” doesn’t do justice to the variety of trail uses and configurations in Aitkin County.

A trail can be designed for snowmobiles, bicycles, off highway or all-terrain vehicles, walking, horseback riding, or cross-country skiing.

Each trail use has specific requirements that keep users safe and protect the environment.  


Each user group that finds a home on Aitkin’s trail systems brings with it an economic boost to the local economy, and ACLD is bringing a growing amount of expertise and experience to the table to plan, improve, and fund these valuable trail systems.


Johnson introduced his report by saying that ACLD spends a lot of staff time during the winter months to plan for summer projects. Along with summer project planning, maintenance and monitoring of trails is conducted by the staff throughout Aitkin County. Staff also spends time engaged in training and continuing education to maximize the benefits of existing trail systems and plan for new systems.

“Many existing trails came into existence when logging trails were adopted by recreational users,” said Johnson “and those trails often require more maintenance and repair than trails that were designed for a specific recreational use from the start.”

Land Commissioner Rich Courtemanche echoed Johnson, saying, “Soils, topography, crossings and other site attributes are best considered when trails are established, not after they are in place. If a trail springs up without planning, it often requires more investment of time and money to keep it in good shape than a trail that was designed well from the beginning.”


Efforts made by ACLD to map trails and trail features using GPS technology have the added benefit of providing baseline data that can be used to measure progress, prioritize areas for repair work, and create a body of information that can be used to support funding requests and grant proposals for continued trail improvement and construction work.


ACLD is seeking funding from the Federal Recreation Trail Program for $32,000 to replace the trail groomer equipment they have right now.  Because it’s a non-budgeted item, the county can replace its current equipment at a low cost if there is a grant to match.


Snowmobile trail users are having a banner year and appreciating the snowfall. Groomers are going out two to three times a week to keep up with high traffic areas on the trails. NRAC members observed that, “There are a lot of snowmobiles around the county this winter.” The group acknowledged that a good snow year brings a huge economic boost to businesses in Aitkin County.


ACLD sent some employees to a ski expo/workshop in Michigan this winter, to learn and observe the state-of-the-art knowledge Michigan has because of its greater experience with cross country ski trails and ski events.

There was a grooming workshop and equipment demonstrations. Aitkin County is  looking at replacing some of the grooming equipment due to age and obsolescence, so they were interested in seeing what equipment is available now.

In addition to learning about newer equipment, staff learned a lot about snow itself, trails, and what criteria trail users consider when evaluating recreational trails, and ski trails in particular.


ACLD is currently meeting with townships affected by the Mille Lacs East Side ATV Trail. The trail will connect the resorts and communities around Mille Lacs Lake.

MnDOT is involved in the planning process and is encouraging trail planners to start making connections even before trail system planning is completed, by encouraging use of road rights of way for ATV travel between resorts and communities on the east side. The county has to wait for a request from the townships before it proceeds to develop ATV trails. Chris Johnson will be making a presentation to that group of townships at the end of this week.


The county’s 2019 application for grant-in-aid funding has made it through the regional process and is now being reviewed in St. Paul.

This year the grant application request is $300,000. In the past ACLD has been getting $130,000 in maintenance money to keep up the county’s trails. The benefits  of these inventory projects and the resulting reports is that they can be used to demonstrate that the need actually exists. That is a key piece of information to include in grant applications.


Courtney McDowell briefed the committee on activities at LLCC, and provided a written summary. At the next NRAC meeting, McDowell will provide a more detailed quarterly report.

Highlights included the recent Master Naturalist camp, and plans for a starlight ski event at LLCC that is part of a county staff wellness initiative.

Three school groups and 3 non-school groups were hosted at LLCC during the month of January, making the month anything but slow for center staff.

There have been updates to the heating system at LLCC, resulting in a reduced energy bill for the center. The system still uses 100 cords of wood per year, but a project is planned for construction of wood storage sheds that will keep the wood dry and improve the system’s efficiency.

The updated heating system  was the subject of an interview Wendie Carlson did with The Ranger newspaper (published Jan. 24).


An offer was made for the assistant land commissioner position. Greg Thornbloom is retiring as inventory specialist. The position is being advertised as a senior forester position with more data analysis responsibilities.

Timber sale dates are set. There will be a joint auction with DNR. Whether it will be a sealed bid auction has not been determined.

Quadna Resort’s repurchase date has elapsed.  The majority of the resort is now owned by the county, but the county  still doesn’t have full ownership.  Back taxes on the remainder of the resort are due by July 31, but discussions are starting now on the future of  this property.

Properties that did not sell on the recent  auction were listed on Zillow (five properties). Other counties (St. Louis County and Itasca) have not had success with online listings. ACLD put five properties up on Zillow as an experiment and has already had eight hits since posting.

The next meeting is March 11 at 6:30 p.m. at LLCC.

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