North Country National Trail progress stalled

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Northeastern Minnesotan leaders are signing a letter in support of a U.S House bill that would officially reroute a section of trail through the Arrowhead Region of the state.

If passed, the Superior Hiking Trail, the Kekakabic Trail and the Border Route Trail may soon be officially included in a much larger national network of trails called the North Country National Scenic Trail.

However, the bill, HR 1026, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, DFL-Minn., has yet to be heard by a subcommittee.

"We're trying to assemble a coalition that will make this point to the folks that are in charge of the committees in Washington that hey, this is important. Our legislation is incredibly simple; it has bipartisan support; there's no known opposition. Please just have a hearing so it can work through the process," said Matt Davis, the North Country Trail's regional trail coordinator for Minnesota and North Dakota.

The letter, signed by over a dozen northeastern Minnesota organization leaders, business owners and government officials, including Two Harbors Mayor Chris Swanson, will be sent to Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and California Rep. Tom McClintock, chairman of the House Natural Resources Federal Lands Subcommittee, urging them to schedule a hearing of HR 1026.

The original route of the NCT was authorized by Congress in 1980, several years before work on the Superior Hiking Trail began, and currently follows a network of trails that allows hikers to access more than 4,000 miles of trail from Vermont to North Dakota.

A section of trail was originally planned from Remer to Jay Cooke State Park, but was never built.

As plans for the 310-mile-long Superior Hiking Trail were imagined, then brought to fruition, the North Country Trail Association has eyed using the SHT, the 41-mile Kekekabic Trail in the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness and the 65-mile Border Route Trail along the Minnesota-Canadian border.

If the bill is passed, the NCT will use those existing 400 miles of trail. Davis expects approximately 150 miles of trail built between Remer and the Kekekabic Trail, east of Ely.

"We don't know exactly where the trails are going to go because we can't figure out where it is going to go until it's official," Davis said.

The trail currently follows a combination of the Mesabi Trail — a paved bike trail — and sections of road to connect the Remer to Kekekabic Trail east of Ely. McMahon and Davis say NCT trail users would rather hike on a primitive trail than a paved surface.

"It's just kind of a different experience," Davis said.

Davis said he hopes the new trail route will pass through four Minnesota state parks: Scenic, McCarthy Beach, Lake Vermilion—Soudan Underground Mine and Bear Head Lake.

The reroute will be also be built on better terrain than the original route, which would have required boardwalks to pass through wetlands between Remer and Jay Cooke.

"That part of the trail would be extremely expensive to make and it's just not that good walking through 90 miles of swamp," said Todd McMahon, a NCT volunteer who has hiked the entire Minnesota trail section.

Trail builders realized that almost immediately, but the reroute needed approval from Congress to be changed.

"And we've been working on it for the last 14 years," Davis said, adding that partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C. isn't helping.

The Senate's version of the bill, S.363, has been passed through the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and is awaiting action by the full Senate.

Minnesota congressmen Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis, both Republicans, are the only representatives from Minnesota who are not cosponsors of the bill. Davis hopes they, along with U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy of northwestern Wisconsin, will co-sign the bill.

"Hopefully, they'll sign on," Davis said.