The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board on Wednesday approved spending $4.95 million on up to 92 miles of mountain bike trails, a move that backers say will cement northeastern Minnesota's position as a burgeoning national and international destination for mountain biking.
The investment will help fund three separate trail systems. One will be built at Giants Ridge ski area in Biwabik. The others will be constructed on top of reclaimed iron ore mines, giant piles of waste rock, and around water-filled mine pit lakes near the Iron Range towns of Cohasset and Chisholm.
The planned Redhead trail south of Chisholm at the former Tioga mine site "creates a unique western canyon-like experience," complete with red rock cliffs, dramatic vistas, and local mining artifacts, Pete Kero with Iron Range Off-Road Cyclists told the board.
Iron Range Resources Commissioner Mark Phillips said the trails could help spur tourism on the Iron Range, improve quality of life for residents, and help attract and retain professionals and families to the region. "You can tell I'm enthusiastic about this," he said.
Phillips cited the success of mountain bike trails at the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Brainerd, which were also built on top of abandoned mining areas that were part of the Cuyuna Iron Range.
Trails were first developed in 2011 with a combination of federal and state dollars. The system has since expanded to 25 miles, and has helped spark a revival in the nearby towns of Crosby and Ironton, where 15 new businesses have opened in the last five years.
Last year the state Legislature approved $3.6 million to nearly triple the length of the trail system at Cuyuna to 75 miles.
Duluth has also invested $100,000 annually for the past several years to help build out a planned 100-mile trail system stretching the length of the city called the Duluth Traverse.
"We know there's a regional demand for this, and we're also on the map nationally and internationally as a region for mountain biking," said Kero.
But all those trails require a large network of committed volunteers to maintain them, said Carrie Ruud, an IRRRB board member and a Republican state Senator from Breezy Point, not far from the Cuyuna mountain bike trails.
Ruud supported the funding and said mountain biking has done "amazing things" for Crosby, where the local hospital credits the trails with helping to recruit doctors. But she cautioned that cycling advocates have found it takes one volunteer to maintain every mile of trail.
"You just can't throw money at the trails, and build trails, and expect them to be successful, because they will not," Ruud said. "You have to have community buy-in."
The only IRRRB board member not to support the plan was state Sen. Tom Bakk, D-Cook.
While the board was still debating the proposal, Bakk said he got a text from the Ely Echo newspaper, asking, "You're going to spend $5 million on bike trails? How about a million for an ATV trail?"
Bakk said the trail projects should first try to secure funding from the state's parks and trails fund, which receives sales tax revenue from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment.
He worries other proposed trails in northeastern Minnesota could now lose out on that funding, including a proposed 100-mile mountain bike trail system in Lake County, between Two Harbors and Tettegouche State Park.
"It's just a matter of timing to me," Bakk said. "Please leverage some money from somewhere else before you come running here for every dime of taconite money that we're trying to use for job creation."