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Pine Valley gains state recognition

Designation as a regional park has many perks

Soon the rest of Minnesota can find out what Cloquet residents already know: Pine Valley is special.

City officials learned last week that Cloquet's Pine Valley Recreation Area - home to ski jumps and woodland trails for skiing, walking and mountain biking - was designated a regionally significant park. That means the woodland park will be included on various statewide maps and online resources. More importantly, it makes the park eligible for Minnesota Legacy funds, statewide sales tax dollars which support better parks and trails as well as cleaner water, healthier habitat and arts and culture.

For next year's applications (for 2025 funds), the Legacy Fund has $11 million to give away, assistant public works director Ross Biebl told the Cloquet City Council Tuesday.

"It's a huge pot of money," he said.

Pine Valley is one of 74 Greater Minnesota parks with the regional parks designation and the only Carlton County park on the list.

The key word is "regional."

"We have the only ski jumps in the area, and all kinds of different activities go on there: Nordic skiing, jumping, snowshoeing, biking, hiking, running," Biebl said, explaining why the Cloquet park made the cut.

In fact, Cloquet is one of only two cities - Coleraine is the other - outside of the Twin Cities metro area with active ski jumps.

This wasn't Cloquet's first time going through the initial application process. Tom Urbanski, a park board member and avid Nordic skier who's been visiting the park since he was a kid, submitted a preliminary application about eight years ago. Although it was denied, the city was encouraged to try again.

In late 2019, fellow parks board member Tim Krohn submitted another application. A trained forester, Krohn included descriptions of the park's geology, including the mature forest and an "exceedingly rare Qli formation," an ice-contact deposit having an esker, a kame (under the ski jumps), and a meltwater fan deposit.

Krohn also touted the growing bike trail system, new since the first application, along with the existing ski jumps and multiuse trails.

"The first time maybe they were just thinking too much of Duluth instead of us hinterland people," Krohn offered with a grin.

Following the initial success, it was up to city officials to pull together a far more detailed application for the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission. That took a little longer, with staffing changes and a pandemic, plus a new Pine Valley master plan to complete.

But the delay brought some good news.

"During the pandemic we saw a huge uptick in numbers at Pine Valley, due to the fact that people weren't traveling as much with Covid," Biebl said.

Biebl said he submitted the final application in October, and commission members visited the same month. He got the good news a little over a month later. A formal letter arrived Friday, informing the city that Pine Valley scored 413 out of 500 points on the evaluation.

The process is designed, said system plan coordinator Joe Czapiewski, "to ensure that parks and trails included in the Greater Minnesota Regional System are of high value and provide a quality recreation opportunity."

"It's just a unique kind of park that we have here - 160-plus acres of woods to go roaming around in, plus it's close to town and a lot of people come here," Krohn said. "When the trails are closed in Duluth, they come here. People going back and forth [to Duluth or the Iron Range] go here. The schools and ski club come here."

Lots to do

Pine Valley has 5.5 kilometers of Nordic ski and walking trails, with lights on the front 2.5 kilometers during the winter months. When the snow melts, the same trails are used by trail runners, dog walkers and others seeking time in nature. The Lumberjacks Nordic ski team and cross country teams practice at the park. The Cloquet Ski Club is based there, offering ski jumping and Nordic ski training and equipment for kids ages 3 and older all winter long.

Cloquet Ski Club members are excited about the news, said longtime coach Ken Ripp, whose son is a Nordic combined (jumping and cross country skiing) college athlete, after basically growing up at Pine Valley. In addition to practicing in Cloquet, the ski club also hosts at least two meets per year, often drawing jumpers from Wisconsin, Minnesota and even the Chicago area.

Ripp said the "ever-growing" club - which boasts over 100 kids now - is hoping a good chunk of the money will be used to promote the Nordic sports at the park.

Winter sports at Pine Valley didn't benefit significantly when other city parks were redone with the first round of sales tax dollars (passed in 2012). More recently, however, Cloquet voters approved a half-percent sales tax increase to fund $2.1 million worth of improvements to Pine Valley specifically, and also said yes to funding $6 million for ice arena improvements with sales tax money. The hockey shelter and senior center were not included in the designation. While that means no legacy funding, the vote means the two hockey arenas should be getting a new joint ice making plant in 2025.

Biebl said "having some skin in the game" - i.e., sales tax dollars to provide matching funds or show local investment - can only help with future grant opportunities at Pine Valley.

A shortlist of the master plan's list of recommended improvements includes sandblasting and painting the steel-framed ski jumps, upgrading and perhaps expanding the trail lighting, better signage, forest management, more bike amenities, paving the parking lot and perhaps building a handicap-accessible all-season pavilion closer to the parking lot, among other things.

Ripp hopes the Legacy funds will bring at least minimal snowmaking abilities to Pine Valley, something the club accomplished for a time in the early 2000s.

"Dreaming for the stars on these bad snow years, you realize a little bit of snowmaking would go a long way to having kids out there participating in our sports," Ripp said, referring to the lack of measurable snow so far. "We're the only jumping club in the United States that doesn't have snowmaking."

Although the ski jumps and trails have been there since the 1960s, the nearly 5.3 miles of bike trails weaving between and above the existing trails were completed in 2018 and 2020 and have brought a whole new wave of visitors to the park.

The unique geography and sandy soils at the park mean the trails dry out quickly, so mountain bikers can ride in Cloquet when many other trails in the region are closed when they're too wet.

Mother nature permitting, the bike trails are also open in the winter for fat tire biking, snowshoeing and hiking in the snow, while the trails are groomed and reserved for skiers only.

Word is spreading about the bike trails, regionally and statewide. In September 2022, more than 600 school-aged mountain bikers converged on Pine Valley for a two-day Minnesota Cycling Association race series. Public works director Caleb Peterson said they expect that race to return every two years.

A loved park

Krohn likes that the park is close to home and wild.

"You've got ski trails and bike trails. If you really want, you can go off into the woods like we do in the Lost Forester," he said, referring to the annual race he holds for brave souls who are willing to follow clues and directions on- and off-trail through the park.

Pine Valley is home to numerous other foot, bike or ski races sponsored by a range of organizations each year.

Biebl credited the many user groups at the park.

"A large part of Pine Valley's success or beauty is the volunteer groups that we have," he said. "The skiers, the bikers, they're all so involved. It's strictly volunteer, but they're out there working on these things. Pine Valley wouldn't be what it is without them."

Biebl said the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission commented on that volunteer support and how it greatly supplements the work of the city's small parks department. Biebl used last winter's tree-bending and -breaking snowstorm as an example. "Without the ski team and ski club help, it would have been weeks and weeks before those back loops were open," he said.

"I think Pine Valley is near and dear to a lot of people."

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