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U.S. House passes North Country Trail reroute

More than a year and a half after a bill was introduced, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation with bipartisan support to make the Superior Hiking Trail, Kekekabic Trail and Border Route Trail a part of the 4,600-mile North Country National Scenic Trail that stretches from Vermont to North Dakota.

The bill, H.R. 1026, incorporates more than 400 miles of existing Minnesota trails into the North County Trail, connecting it with the Appalachian Trail in Vermont and extending to Lake Sakakawea State Park in central North Dakota.

Incorporating the three trails into one of the 11 national scenic trails, which also include the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, will give the trails much bigger promotion nationally and access to additional funding. For the SHT, which is already known as one of the premier trails in the nation, the change doesn't mean much. For the other two lesser known trails, the higher profile and additional funding sources could have major impacts.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, DFL-Minn., co-sponsored a bill, H.R. 799, and testified before the House in December 2016, but the bill went nowhere. Nolan also sponsored the updated bill, but in February it had yet to be heard by a committee.

In February, local leaders, including Two Harbors Mayor Chris Swanson, signed a letter in support of the changes to the North Country Trail route and sent it to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and House Natural Resources Federal Lands Subcommittee Chairman Tom McClintock, R-Calif.

Nolan said the bill moved slowly through the House over questions of eminent domain being used to take land from property owners and if federal money would be used to build new sections of trail. However, efforts have been made to keep the trail on public land and the bill stipulates land can't be taken from private landowners for the trail. In addition, any new trail construction will be done with volunteers and funding from other sources, like the North Country Trail Association.

"The legislative process is sometimes like herding cats," Nolan said.

The original route of the NCT was authorized by Congress in 1980, several years before work on the Superior Hiking Trail began, and follows a network that allows hikers to access more than 4,000 miles of trail from Vermont to North Dakota. For years, local organizers and volunteers have advocated rerouting the NCT along the North Shore and formally adding the three trails to the network, which have been used as part of the NCT for decades, NCTA Executive Director Andrea Ketchmark said.

Volunteers work to clear the Kekakabic Trail in May 2017 after a 2016 storm left fallen trees. (Photo courtesy Derrick Passe)A section of trail was originally planned from Remer to Jay Cooke State Park, but was never built because it is cost-prohibitive. By using existing trails, the NCTA can avoid much of the cost, though it will need to construct approximately 150 miles of trail between Remer and where the Kekekabic Trail terminates east of Ely.

For the SHT, the changes will pretty much end at the additional signs at some its trailheads. The Superior Hiking Trail Association already has a lot of support and a robust volunteer network to help with needed maintenance on the trail. The Kekekabic Trail Association, however, is totally volunteer-run and the plan is for that association to become a chapter to the NCTA. In that scenario, the NCTA would take care of the administrative parts of the association and the local chapter would be better able to focus on trail upkeep.

For the Kekekabic, the help is sorely needed. In the summer of 2016, a windstorm blew down hundreds of trees along the route of the trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, making the trail nearly impassable for most hikers.

Two Harbors, Silver Bay and other North Shore communities could see an economic impact as well, with hiking having grown into a $196 billion a year business in the U.S., according to Nolan. The cities will have the opportunity to be named "trail towns" by the NCTA. There is no cost to becoming a trail town; it is simply an agreement between the NCTA and the communities to promote the trail and businesses to hikers.

The Senate must still pass its own version of the bill and President Donald Trump must sign it, but Ketchmark and Nolan are optimistic the bill's bipartisan support will get it signed into law before the November election. However, if there is no action before Congress goes into recess at the end of the year, the process will have to begin again when the 116th Congress convenes in January.

"We're hopeful now that it has passed the House," Ketchmark said. "Our biggest concern is the time needed to get it done. If it's not done before November, it's back to square one."

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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