Building community support for a proposed multi-use trail is like running the 100-meter hurdles in the Olympics. Success or failure often depends on your start right out of the blocks -- your ability to provide factual information to communities early and often.
“I’m surprised that there are always some people opposed to any trail,” said Phil Martin, P.E., Senior Project Manager with Bolton & Menk, Inc. a consulting engineering firm in Minnesota. “Consensus is important. It’s always better to get out ahead of it, and let people know what’s going on. Otherwise, people start to speculate about it and then they use disinformation and live it as gospel. Pretty soon, people come up ticked off and they’re opposed without even knowing what’s happening.”
Your title here...
Martin was the lead consultant during the early planning stages of the Camp Ripley/Veterans State Trail (CRVST) in central Minnesota. It’s envisioned as a 70-mile, multi-use trail providing direct motorized and non-motorized recreational use, including ATV riding, snowmobiling, hiking, running, bicycling, in-line skating and possibly horse riding. It will connect a number of existing ATV trails and non-motorized paved trails to form one large recreational route. Along the way, trail users will be able to access the recreational opportunities of two state parks, as well as the Crow Wing and Mississippi Rivers. The trail will also showcase historic and cultural themes, including early Crow Wing town settlements and the Fort Ripley ruins. And the trail will be built in honor of military veterans and Camp Ripley, an adjacent 53,000-acre regional training facility for the military, as well as federal, state and local law enforcement.
Bolton & Menk, Inc. -- with a broad range of experience in the areas of civil, environmental and transportation engineering -- was selected by the Minnesota Region 5 Development Commission to provide professional services for the CRVST Corridor Study. The trail planning initiative came as the result of a grass-roots effort by a civic group in the town of Little Falls, which successfully lobbied the Minnesota Legislature for State Trail designation of a true multi-use trail in 2010. The Corridor Study began in August of 2011 and was largely complete by March of 2012.
As he started to create potential routes and trail corridors, Martin engaged local communities to provide factual information early, and to find out their level of interest in having the trail connect to their towns. He asked community and civic leaders five basic questions:
Q1 - ”Are you interested in the trail going through your community, or would you want it to go around the edge?”
Q2 - “Are there local trails in your community that could connect to this trail?”
Q3 - “What does your community have to offer in terms of scenic tourism and historic sites? Why would somebody come to this community if we ran this trail through it?”
Q4 - ”What is your view about motorized traffic in the community? Do you have ordinances or laws that would restrict it? Are you in favor of motorized recreation?”
Q5 - “Is there interest in your community to include equestrian use of this trail?”
Across the board, all the town leaders Martin met with were interested in having both motorized and non-motorized traffic not just come to the edge of town, but directly through town. “All these small communities are looking for economic value, a reason to thrive again, and they saw traffic from bike and motorized riders as valuable to their economy and to their communities,” said Martin.
Martin points out that, over the years, many community leaders have seen the benefits in both tourism and quality of life that have been provided by successful bicycle trail systems in southern Minnesota, and OHV trail systems in northern Minnesota. According to a 2009 study by the University of Minnesota Tourism Center, Minnesota trail users spend $3.2 billion annually.
Following a series of open houses for the CRVST, the Minnesota DNR is now developing the trail’s Master Plan. It falls within the context of a major statewide planning effort called the “Parks and Trails Legacy Plan: A 25-Year Long-Range Plan for Minnesota,” completed in early 2011. The Legacy Plan was mandated by the Minnesota Legislature to help guide how funds from the Clean Water Land and Legacy Act (the “Legacy Amendment”) should be spent for parks and trails of regional significance.
Every OHV trail project has its share of hurdles. Before you can attempt to jump over them, you must first have a focused, fact-based start right out of the blocks to avoid disinformation and build community support.