A battle is being waged in Eagles Nest Township (ENT) as ATV enthusiasts looking for a way to navigate through the area on a proposed Prospector ATV Trail System route have run into a roadblock in the form of residents there and the township board of supervisors.
At the heart of the issue is ATV use on a portion of the Taconite Snowmobile Trail within the township – board members oppose the idea and ATV officials say it makes the most sense for a route that will connect Ely and Tower to the 130-mile Prospector Trail System, which when complete will connect Ely, Babbitt, Embarrass, Tower, and the Bear Head and Lake Vermilion State Parks.
It’s an ambitious, multimillion dollar project, being coordinated and spearheaded by mostly volunteers, that has been ongoing for several years.
When it’s finally complete – and it is close now – it promises to produce one of the most unique ATV riding experiences in the state and has the potential to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in tourist dollars to northern Minnesota.
But first, the Prospector ATV Club and its supporters need to find a way to get back and forth from Tower to Ely after routing has become a contentious issue dominating debates at Eagles Nest Township Board meetings all summer.
On June 25 the board – after hearing from ATV officials and community members – passed a resolution opposing a trail access route through the township, electing not to encourage the DNR to allow ATV traffic through Bear Head State Park - part of which lies in the township - and supporting an option to run south of the State Park.
They also commissioned a task force to develop recommendations on how to achieve the conclusions of the resolution, ENT Supervisor and Board Chair Richard Floyd said by email Thursday.
“The Task Force was made up of volunteers who supported our opposition to a corridor access route through the township. I would not characterize them as anti-ATVers, but some were clearly opposed to having a route through the township,” he said, adding that task force meetings were open to the public and several ATVers attended.
The charter reads, in part, that the task force was set up “to recommend to the Township Board of Supervisors viable approaches the board can take to prevent the routing of ATV traffic over the aforementioned tracks. Note that preventing random ATV traffic within the Township is not the aim of the Task Force; it is through traffic on an official route that is the concern.”
That task force is set to give its recommendations at the ENT board meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Eagles Nest Town Hall, which has ATVers in the area, including Prospector Club members, extremely concerned about the future of trail access in that area.
When asked what those recommendations will be, Floyd said by email that “they had not been formally presented to the Board yet, so I would not make them available for publication,” adding that at this time he couldn’t say whether voting would take place or not.
“We definitely do not oppose ATV use on township or county roads. We oppose increased traffic due to a trail system through the township,” he said, adding that the board does not support opening up the Taconite Trail through Bear Head State Park.
“The portion of the Taconite Trail that we are opposed to runs through and very close to the boundary of the Township. Noise is an issue for those who have residences in that vicinity,” he said.
Prospector Alliance Trail Administrator Ron Potter said by email Thursday that trail officials have looked at other options for the northern route but that the Taconite State Trail makes the most sense and impacts the least number of residences, and it is all public land.
“We also looked at going north of the public road system but getting tied back to the Taconite Trail before the Murray Road was an issue. Also, when we learned that was the general route the Mesabi Trail was going, we decided to stay out of that area, just avoid that potential conflict.,” Potter said. “Again, the Taconite Trail makes the most sense, it is open from Ely to Purvis Lake now for ATV use. It is open from Highway 53 to Side Lake for ATV's. The Master Plan has been updated to allow ATV use where the trail is sustainable and the segment, we are asking to use around Eagles Nest Township is sustainable, most of it is already a road, Public access road to Eagles Nest Three or a forest road for timber management.”
On Wednesday, a letter signed by Prospector ATV Club President Nick Wognum and Potter was circulated on several Facebook pages asking anyone who participates in the sport to attend the Tuesday meeting to let their voices be heard on the issue.
According to Wognum and Potter’s letter, ENT board members are planning to move forward with a plan that “would effectively ban ATVs (and side by sides) in Eagles Nest Township.”
Floyd said by email Thursday that the board was approached by Potter “three to five” years ago about the prospect of running trails through the township and at the time the board opposed the idea.
“We heard nothing more about it until the board's regular meeting on May 18 of this year, when Mr. Potter reported that a trail was planned,” Floyd said. “Board members obtained more information in the weeks between that meeting and the next meeting, on June 15.”
Floyd said a special board meeting was then called for June 25 to get additional information on the trail, and Potter was invited to represent the ATV community.
Potter said his group reached out to ENT and other townships and cities when they started this project seven years ago to let them know what we were working on and ask for their support and agreed that ENT indicated they were not interested in supporting it.
“Over the last seven years we have completed a NEPA document, EAW, and wetland permitting, all which are public documents and have a public comment as part of the process,” Potter said by email. “Nothing about this project was secret, it has been a very long and public process. They have had many opportunities to engage or comment and they haven't.”
Potter added that he reached out to the board this spring, got on the agenda, and informed them the DNR was completing the upgrade of the Taconite Trail from Ely to Purvis and that it would be open to the public this summer for ATV use.
“This would bring riders through the township on the public roads because we had not been able to get the DNR to open more of the Taconite Trail, providing a trail route through the area,” he said. “This shouldn't have been a surprise, but I felt I should be up-front with them, the DNR wasn't telling them. And that is when the wheels started falling off the wagon.”
Potter made the ATVers case at the June 25 special meeting but was met with resistance from a majority of the 30 or so Eagles Nest Township residents reported to be there.
According to meeting minutes, he explained that the proposed route of Trail 4 would be the Northern Route to connect Ely to Tower from the end of the Purvis Road using the Bear Head State Park Road, the Walsh Road and Swanson Shores Road to connect to the Taconite Trail.
Potter then explained the southerly ATV route from Ely would cross the Beaver River to trail 5, 3, 1 and connect to Tower. The southern route will hopefully be completed this summer with a temporary bridge and ultimately a permanent crossing for both snowmobiles and ATVs, adding that that route may siphon some of the traffic from being routed through the township.
Board members relayed several concerns they and residents of ENT had about the route including an increase in non-resident traffic, the possibility of increased trespassing issues, increased noise, and high speeds – particularly on Walsh Road – resulting in accidents between ATVs and pedestrians.
In 2016 St. Louis County passed an ordinance allowing the use of ATVs on their roads outside of city limits but during the meeting Floyd said the township has complete control of the township road; can approve or deny the use of a township road for ATV use or some level in between; and that he believes that the MN DNR will support the township’s decision regarding the use of our township road for ATVs.