St. Louis County Commissioner
Founding member Greater MN Regional Parks and Trails
Commission (District One)
I understand a newly-formed opposition group has convinced the city council to research breaching a long-standing contract with the DNR on the proposed OHV park in Houston.
After more than a decade of good-faith planning, accepting more than half-a-million in state and federal grant money, and risking the credibility of the city as reliable future partners, my sincere advice to the citizens and city leaders is this:
Think very carefully before getting behind any 11th-hour effort to pull the plug on this project.
As a long-time rural local elected official, former convenience store owner near the Gilbert OHV park, and statewide rural park and trail advocate, I know how important a grocery store, hardware store, restaurant, bank and library are to keeping a community vibrant.
Small towns in deep-rural areas of the state face a universal challenge: Adapt to attract new life and new energies, or do nothing and accept the inevitable slow, dreary descent toward irrelevance as a livable community.
Your previous community leaders should be commended for recognizing Houston was unlikely to attract a new job-bearing manufacturing plant to support Main Street businesses, and the county or state was not coming forward with a new hospital or veterans home. So they looked at the advantages of creating a multiple-use outdoor recreation model after researching the good things happening at the OHV parks in Appleton and Gilbert – where virtually none of the theoretical concerns raised by opposition groups in those areas during the public input phase ever materialized.
Simultaneously, a local landowner was already busy bulldozing a ragged system of OHV trails in the bluffs that was completely outside the public process, any formal environmental review, and definitely not controlled. To their credit, those previous city leaders agreed to work with local OHV clubs and the DNR on a sustainable and systematic publicly controlled plan for the project.
People question why the DNR would get behind a motorized project like Gilbert, Appleton, or Houston. The hard truth is traditional users – hikers, bikers, canoeists, bird watchers, and even hunters, are becoming an endangered species. They are aging-out quickly with no new generational interest following behind. That’s why the DNR was forced to target younger, more diverse, and non-traditional user groups like women, minorities and yes, OHV enthusiasts. OHV is a perfect link to upwardly-mobile, family-oriented outdoor enthusiasts who are good neighbors and good partners – and they spend where they recreate.
My experience is hikers, bikers and canoeists pull into the store with coolers loaded with supplies they bought in the cities, gas-up, fill their water bottles in the restroom and leave. The OHVers make it a point to buy local and develop meaningful, long-term local relationships.
You’re likely not hearing much from your local businesses on this. My bet is a few people are making things pretty testy in town. But it’s no secret local retailers are hurting after a year like we’ve just come through when conditions were already tough for businesses in small towns. There is no question they need this new revenue, and you need them if you are going to keep Main Street strong.
On the issue of people making things testy in town, it’s natural someone would want to protect their own organizational interests. But the OHV park in Gilbert and Appleton didn’t detract from the hikers, bikers and water sports in the area, as some said it would. Not even close. The parks added another dimension and another important reason to recreate in our areas.
So don’t let anybody tell you the OHV park is a mutually exclusive proposition for your town. The OHV park does not need to die so your town can live. Quite the contrary. Your town and your core retail businesses likely need the park more than any customer-conscious retailer is willing to say. So you should say it for them.
Support your local businesses and make your city stronger by supporting the park. Nobody needs to risk retribution by standing up in a public meeting to speak in favor of the park. Just make it a point to let your mayor and city council know you support the park – and urge them to do the same.
Denise Geiwitz says
You live with that noise outside! Build it outside city limits!
Bryan Hansel says
Keith Nelson, a St. Louis County Commissioner who lives over 330 miles away from Houston, has a habit of responding to people outside of St. Louis County critiquing plans in his backyard by saying, “Watch your own bobber.” He even says that to people living in nearby counties when they disagree with him. In this case, Nelson ought to watch his own bobber.
Mark Krey says
Ed Balcer says
This article has gained alot of traction (pun intended) in the 4wd community which is why I am reading this in Green Bay Wisconsin. I see there is a push to try and close down an established and a proposed OHV park in the Gilbert MN area. I can also tell you that I am a Jeep owner who bought a trailer because I live in Wisconsin and I take my Jeep out of Wisconsin because there are no parks to use my vehicle in. I have been to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan many times at different places because Wisconsin is more interested in bird watchers and horse riders than Jeep owners. I have well over 100K invested in my Jeep, trailer, and GMC Sierra pick up that I pull with. I wheel with groups or go alone and meet people but I spend no less than 1000 into the local economy when I go. I have no problem doing this. I am a 59 year old man that is retired. I am not interested in tearing up the land or my Jeep but I want to challenge the vehicle and my abilities. My home state has had people make multiple attempts at public parks thru the DNR and many 4 x 4 groups all to fail because of some people objecting. I will say that there certainly have been 4 x 4 owners who gave the hobby a bad name thru many stupid acts in the past. I am not one of those people and certainly have no problem abiding by any parks rules. I am not sure why Gilbert is trying to become a ghost town but closing the park will facilitate that very quickly. Believe me, bird watchers, hikers and horse riders do not spend anywhere near what 4 x 4 owners do in the community. Gas, food , lodging, entertainment, parts, entry fees, OHV stickers, I have done it all and have no problem doing it. I urge you to keep the park open at all costs. Raise fees if you have to but don’t shut the parks down. Your friends and neighbors cant afford it.
Scott Jones says
Very true, very well stated. Thank you sir.
Brody MacLean says
It’s really too bad that when people work hard to make a park where everyone can go to recreate responsibily gets shut down by just a few people that don’t understand it.
I drive 7 hours one way to stay 3-4 days, spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars over those 3-4 days on food,lodging,fuel and whatever else I might find interesting in areas like Gilbert multiple times in a year.
I don’t know why everyone can’t get along and respect other people’s forms of outdoor recreation. And that goes both ways.
An avid OHVer
Mike Piens says
I always stop to eat in the local restaurants where I am visiting.
Fill up my UTV or truck with gas. This is the way to grow your businesses. If someone likes coming to your town they are going to spend some money.
James Goeldner says
I have been to Gilbert 10 times and stayed a full weekend to just use the OHV park. Many times it was easier to get a hotel then to haul a camper. Many times I brought the camper and spent $1000 on food, gas, lodging and often spent the night at the local bar. I am now traveling to other parks to do more of the same because we are seeking new trails. If you build the Virginia section I will continue another 10 times exploring that park. Some of the up and coming parks are huge that size draws more enthusiasts. I travel over 400 miles to come to Gilbert. That mileage brings all of Minneapolis and Milwaukee In to play. The growth of these parks is a huge factor in my travel to seek new trails are harder obstacles. For many OHV users weather isn’t a factor like hiking, canoeing or other water sports. Wisconsin is light years behind MN and I commend the growth of leaders that prove it year in and year out by looking at the big dollar picture. Not even mentioned above is when the vehicle loses a tire or the vehicle breaks money is spent to repair it at local stores. Tow vehicles and trailers often need attention too which is more money spent in the local economy. This needs to also be factored In. Just my .02
Jeep and OHV enthusiast
Dean Tabor says
Very well put! My family an I go up to Gilbert and Appleton at least once a year and we travel from 35 miles south of the Twin Cities to go there. We extra food when we get there over the weekend. Go to local restaurants for breakfast or dinner at least once a weekend.
Sarah Jilk-Thompson says
Except for other departments of the DNR are not behind this, citing concerns of threatening timber rattlesnakes habitat,., the amount of grant-in-aid dollars that will be needed to construct trails on our sandy terrain, future erosion, and more serious concerns that were swept under the rug by the Trail dept….
Once the grandeur of the trail wears off, who is left with the mess this will leave?
Being a community member that is building future generations here, I would much rather see the city build on the assets we already have (i.e. beautiful new City Park Playground, Nature Center, Trailhead Park, and International Owl Center) than try to fit a completely demographic in….
Our small town cannot withstand multiple different types of tourists.
Lastly, a majority of our citizens simply do not want it.
Kindly, Leave our bluffs alone.
H. westby says
This guy is a loser.. nothing but a trouble maker for his own agenda. Google his history… nothing but one conflict after the other. His opinion doesn’t mean anything what so ever.. Mot a respected member of his community.
Karla Bloem says
Houston currently has far more tourism than the Iron Range OHV Area attracts. According to the Minnesota State Trail User Count 2018 Report, 11,435 people used the Root River Trail at mile marker 35 in 2017 (far enough outside of town to eliminate many of the local users.) In 2019 (pre-COVID), the International Owl Center had 12,619 visitors to their center. In comparison, the Iron Range OHV State Recreation Area has not topped 6,000 visitors in a year during the fairly generous hours it is staffed (based on data provided by the DNR.) Tourism will grow considerably when the new Owl Center facility is built, with annual visitation estimated to be a minimum of 40,000 people/year (based on research by the University of Minnesota.)
According to tourism professionals, tourism is not always just additive, as people in favor of this project are assuming. Putting an OHV trail on a bluff over the city of Lanesboro would not likely increase tourism…it would likely drive away many existing tourists. Putting an OHV trail on Grandad’s Bluff also isn’t likely to be a net gain for the City of La Crosse. So why is it OK for Houston?
The noise concerns in Houston are very different from Gilbert or Appleton. The closest trails to the residential areas of Gilbert and Appleton are 0.8 miles away. In Houston the closest trails are just 0.2 miles away from rows of houses (not the isolated houses that are even closer), plus the trails are elevated on a bluff to help the sound carry farther. Even Trails Unlimited, the expert trail designers for Houston, said that the trail may not be able to comply with state noise laws.
The sites are also extremely different. Gilbert is built on an old iron mine, Appleton on an old gravel mine, and Houston is planned for a relatively undisturbed naturally vegetated bluff with one of the rarest habitats in the state, at least 2 threatened species, 4 species of special concern, and 7 species of greatest conservation need. There are likely several more. Houston’s trail density is four times higher than Gilbert, making it difficult to avoid these rare species and habitats. The DNR’s own field staff have said in written reports that the trail alignment will MAXIMIZE negative environmental impacts, yet no changes are being made.
The City of Houston and MN DNR also failed to follow procedure in at least four ways when conducting the 2013 Environmental Assessment for the original 80 acre parcel: they did not assess potential impacts of motorized vehicles, they did not search for any historical documents about the area, they did not provide agency response to any public comments, nor did they issue a Finding Of No Significant Impact. The DNR refuses to correct the errors. The DNR has also refused to do any formal review of the trail alignment, even though a mandatory EAW is required for new OHV areas of 80 acres or more. When it comes to motorized vehicle trails, the DNR is no longer in the business of protecting the environment.
While the DNR normally funds the restoration of bluff prairies and timber rattlesnake habitat, in this case they are actually providing 100% of the funding for the permanent damage to the bluff prairies and timber rattlesnake habitat.
The resistance to this project is not new. There was a petition to put the project to a ballot vote in 2013, and major opposition at the public hearing. This year a petition calling for the City Council to cancel the project was signed by 400 people: a minimum of 59% of the voting population, 24 business owners, 24 non-resident property owners, and 35 adjacent landowners. More were opposed but unwilling to make their names public by signing a petition. And don’t just assume certain business owners are in favor of the project; there are businesses who oppose it that you wouldn’t expect.
What has been seen in Gilbert does not apply in Houston, and yes our concerns our well-researched and well-founded.