The meeting room at Crosby's Heartwood Center was filled to near capacity Thursday, January 8 for the annual meeting of the Cuyuna Mountain Bike Crew, where they presented their Master Vision for the future of one of the country's best mountain bike trail systems.
Their vision: Ride three days without repeating a trail.
The Status Quo
Cuyuna Mountain Bike Crew President Aaron Hautala presented the results of a two-month cyclist survey from late last summer that revealed what should come to no surprise to anyone who has ridden the trails, talked to the locals, and paid attention to what's going on in the towns between the mine lakes:
Ridership is up and the mountain bike trails have put Cuyuna on the map.
Two-thirds of the 700 respondents had never been to the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area before and had traveled from as far as North Carolina and Manitoba, though 90% of visitors are Minnesotans.
The average person spent about $80 a day, an estimated $2.1 million worth of economic impact each year.
However, riders are not entirely pleased with the status quo and want to see improvements for the future: More trails, clearly marked access and signage, better camping and lodging facilities, brew pubs, Wi Fi hotspots, and more diverse shops.
Among the top detractions: Lack of new trails, fear of crime, and a return of mining to the area.
One comment was blunt: "I wouldn't come if mines opened back up and ruined the trails."
While visitors and members of the Cuyuna Crew can't see the area improved fast enough, DNR Regional Manager Scott Kelling said, "Cuyuna is part of a much bigger system that faces challenges. We never have enough money to be able to do what we like to do. That's a frustration and a challenge for us, too."
He said the Cuyuna State Recreation Area has taken on the iconic flagship status of such places as Itasca State Park or Split Rock Lighthouse State Park because it is a premier mountain biking destination which attracts a new set of users: Young people and families.
It offers traditional and unique new ways to enjoy the outdoors. As the DNR tries to bring diversity to its system of parks and trails, Cuyuna is an example of mine land reclamation and new economic opportunity, and sets a "great example of partnerships with local entities."
"What you have to know going into this is, that this is not going to happen tomorrow." Hautala said before he presented the Cuyuna Mountain Bike Crew's Master Vision of the future of the Cuyuna trail system.
"This is a plan. This is a vision."
The Master Vision for the future of Cuyuna is the creation of an international, year-round family destination where riders can explore for three days without repeating a trail, because as Hautala puts it "Overnight stays will increase economic opportunity."
With this mantra in mind the crew has identified a set of priorities for making this vision a reality.
Top priority is safety. All existing and new trails will allow one-way traffic only, which means additional entry and exit routes will have to be created.
There will also be new kinds of trails, including true beginner and expert trails, and a trail for hand cycles, a kind of bicycle that is powered by the arms rather than the legs.
Other important goals call for connecting the trail system with amenities in the surrounding communities, providing back country experiences close to town, and developing trail loops that can be partially shut down for races without affecting the whole system. The latter will allow for multiple high-school league events to take place at the same time.
The crew also has its sights set on the growing ranks of winter fat bikers.
Hautala hopes that trails designed with grooming in mind will make Cuyuna the 'preeminent winter mountain biking destination in the world.'
The vision will take an estimated $6 million to become real, but, according to the crew's estimates, it will create about $21 million in annual economic activity for the region.
"This will benefit all of us". Hautala said as he unveiled the plan for raising the money and turning overburden piles into economic engines by the year 2020.
The Crew plans to approach the four counties and communities surrounding the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area to join in the fundraising efforts.
One important ally is the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation (BLAEDC), which will partner with the project financially and supports developing the Cuyuna area for recreation, rather than mining.
Also, IMBA hired Judy Erickson to be government affairs and communication specialist to help secure money from the legislature in 2016.
Erickson was instrumental in getting funds for the initial paved section of the Cuyuna Lakes Trail.
The crew's vision will be reconciled with reality when the DNR completes the master plan for the expansion over the winter months and the public has had a chance to comment.
-Haul Road becomes one-way, construction of an exit trail summer 2015: 1.5 miles
-Purchase of a third hill equal height to Bobsled, opportunity for a gravity flow trail
South Portsmouth Unit:
-New trail construction to eliminate one-way, summer 2015: 2 miles
City of Cuyuna:
-Trail connecting pump track to Rally Center: 5 miles
Crow Wing County:
-Cuyuna Hills Trail: Through 100-foot hills with clay soil: 10 miles
Black Hoof Unit (new): south of Mahnomen near Ironton
-Hot Lap Trail: Beginner with intermediate hot laps
-Green Loop: Redesign Easy Street to be one-way: 2 miles
-Extra trail on South Huntington Lake to eliminate one-way on Easy Street: 1.5 miles
-South Pennington Trail: 2 miles
Maroco Unit (new): Near Trommald
-Large overburden piles, expert singletrack with boardwalk-sections through wetlands.
-Maroco Blue backcountry trail: 8 miles
-Maroco Black backcountry trail: 4 miles
-Alstead Peninsula Blue trail: 1.5 miles
-System of singletrack loops that can be shut off for racing individually, without having to shut off the entire system. New trails could accommodate two races at the same time. Also features a groomed singletrack across the lake: 6 miles
Riverton: Connection to the paved Cuyuna Lakes Trail
Deerwood: Connection to the paved Cuyuna Lakes Trail
Crosby: True North Base Camp with cabins and tent camping. Paddle/Bike in and out