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County trails get 'huge win' for public access

The Carlton County land department took to social media last week to celebrate expansion of its trail network and partnerships with local “hook and bullet” clubs that proved invaluable to making it happen.

“This partnership led to 11 miles of non-motorized recreation trails being established and reopened after suffering from winter storm damage,” the land department wrote on Facebook, showcasing pristine-looking hunter-walking and hiking trails outside Wrenshall and Moose Lake.

The newest trails, outside Wrenshall and bordering Wisconsin off County Road 4, feature 4 miles of public-access trails, including a connector to the North Country National Scenic Trail — a 4,800-mile stretch from the Missouri River in North Dakota to the Appalachian Trail in Vermont.

“The new [North Country Trail] segment that was finished there in late 2023 was a critical connection between the Superior Hiking Trail/NCT to the west and an existing NCT segment in Wisconsin, and it eliminated a dangerous roadwalk,” said Matthew Davis, regional trail coordinator for the trail association based in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

In addition to the North Country Trail Association, Pheasants Forever and the Ruffed Grouse Society were also key partners with Carlton County in trail expansion and restoration.

“In addition to connecting a section of the North Country Trail, this property provides public access to more than 600 acres of landlocked Carlton County owned land,” said Sabin Adams, Minnesota public lands manager for Pheasants Forever. “It truly is a missing puzzle piece and a huge win for public access.”

To learn more, the Pine Knot News spoke with Carlton County land director Greg Bernu and others about the Wrenshall developments, which began with the purchasing of what had been known as the White property, a 200-acre parcel of land featuring wooded terrain and an abandoned railroad grade.

“It’s a cool area, where you’re starting to get into clay cuts that make for deep gorges,” Bernu said. “It’s a fantastic piece to walk.”

Hiking has taken off as a pastime, even more so since the Covid-19 pandemic.

“People need to get out and do a little wandering — or nature bathing or forest bathing,” Bernu said. “Those are fancy words for a walk in the woods. But we’ve got to de-plug from our machines once in a while and see what else is out there. ‘Forest bathing’ is the catchiest phrase I’ve heard.”

When the Wrenshall land was privately owned, the county was denied easement to access available land, featuring old logging roads and a railroad grade. But once the property came up for sale around 2020, the county revisited the parcel. The land department, self-sustaining with endeavors such as logging contracts, didn’t have the money to buy the property itself. But Pheasants Forever and the North Country Trail Association did, contributing $270,000 and $30,000, respectively, to go with a county contribution in the neighborhood of $30,000. After purchase, Pheasants Forever gave its stake in the land to Carlton County.

“That’s how we got that portion of trail,” Bernu said, allowing the county to tie into the Wisconsin portion of the North Country Trail and take that part of the trail entirely off paved roads.

The trails outside Wrenshall are non-motorized and feature wider hunter-access trails along with narrower hiking trails. Of course, following the 2022-23 winter and its record snowfall — including the wet, heavy snow from the “blue” snowstorm of December 2022 — the trail was a disaster. Bernu said some snowshoers tried to navigate the trails, creating winding paths befitting a snowshoe hare around debris and “smooshed” trees that bent over with the weight of snow.

“The storm just mangled the trails,” Bernu said.

The county tried to clear the trails last year, but its equipment didn’t have the horsepower to make a dent in the damage.

Enter the Ruffed Grouse Society, which last summer assessed the damage. Gary Dotts, a Brainerd-based grant consultant for the society, and Bernu walked the trails together. Dotts subsequently supervised the $9,500 process to contract with a heavy equipment operator out of Effie, Minnesota, to clear the trails. The contractor used a “linebacker,” which grinds forest debris, including up to 20-foot trees, into mulch.

“We’ve got some funds to assist with this type of stuff,” Dotts said, describing a $300,000 fund the society is using for projects across the forested part of the state. “The average user does not see the restoration efforts that go into opening up existing trails.”

The work included clearing the hunter walking trails and even creating some new loops to make the access largert.

The trail is now all mulched over and planted with clover. Dotts said it figures to be like a carpet in a couple of years.

“With the world being taken over by motorized trails, the Ruffed Grouse Society wants to make sure the non-motorized experience still gets some trails,” Dotts said.

“This block of public land will provide opportunities for hunting, trout fishing, hiking, biking, birding and many other outdoor activities,” Adams said. “We are extremely pleased that we could be a partner in acquiring this property and not only protect wildlife habitat but make important connections.”

For Bernu, the creation of the North Country Trail tie-in, along with additional hiking and hunter-walking loops, showcased an ideal scenario, in which public and private groups partnered to create greater public access to forestland.

“It was so much fun that it all came together,” Bernu said. “We can’t always afford it, but what else can we do? We started calling hook and bullet clubs, because we know they sometimes have money to spend. I can’t talk it up enough about the work that’s been done out there.”

Editor’s note: Visit https://co.carlton.mn.us/230/Recreation and click on the “Walking trails” link to find maps and learn how to access PDF maps to a user’s phone.

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