SNF proposes to reclassify roads and trails, restore streams, allow dogsleds and off-road vehicles

A Superior National Forest road on the Tofte Ranger District. (Greg Seitz, Quetico Superior Wilderness News)

The U.S. Forest Service is proposing to change roads and trails on the Tofte and Gunflint Ranger District to accommodate uses ranging from dogsleds to off-road vehicles. The project would authorize a network of dogsled trails developed by mushers near Hovland, remove failing culverts that are unnecessary and hurting streams, and close some road sections beyond those crossings. It would also open up several remote campgrounds to off-road vehicles.

The agency is now accepting comments on the proposal. A Draft Environmental Assessment was recently released.

“The purpose of the East Zone Trails and Roads Project is to enhance and maintain the recreational experiences and opportunities for access along the north shore of Lake Superior while protecting resources,” the Forest Service says.

The project is intended to meet two overarching goals: enhance recreational opportunities and access, and help restore streams, wetlands, and watersheds affected by old, disused infrastructure.

“We are excited about this project and the long-term recreational and ecological benefits to the Tofte and Gunflint Ranger Districts from the actions we are proposing,” wrote Michael Crotteau, Gunflint district ranger, and Ellen Bogardus-Szymaniak, Tofte district ranger.

All told, the project would designate 11 miles of new trails, of which nine miles would be for winter use only, with two miles open for summer activities like off-road vehicle driving. It would open 39 campsites at six campgrounds to off-highway vehicles (OHVs), and restore at least five stream crossings with the removal of failed culverts.

Culverts and dogsled trails

The culvert removal will include the restoration of stream crossings in several areas, including on trout stream tributaries of Lake Superior. This may reduce erosion into the streams and allow fish to move more freely, opening up new areas for spawning or other habitat.

The new trails that will be created are primarily represented by the official designation of an existing trail network in the Colvill and Hovland areas, where a long-standing dog mushing community is centered. The Forest Service has been working with the dogsledders for at least a decade to make the trails legitimate. While dogsledding is allowed on the National Forest, trail maintenance and clearing is not supposed to happen on non-designated routes.

“In some cases, Superior National Forest decommissioned roads and user-created trails have been maintained or cleared to join one road to another to provide connectivity,” the Forest Service says. “These roads and trails extend from County Road 14 north to the Northern Light Lake area and east towards the Brule River.”

When the trails are officially designated, maintenance will be legalized, but the roads will also be added to official Forest Service maps. This publicity could promote additional use.

“It is also probable that new, increasingly popular user groups such as fat-tire bikers, will utilize these trails if they are approved and publicized,” the agency writes. It says snowmobiling will be allowed on the trails, but will probably remain at low levels due to the types of trails not being ideal for riding.

The entire Superior National Forest is considered Critical Habitat for Canada Lynx, an endangered species, and therefore the designation of new trails or roads is supposed to be accompanied by the removal of others. Roads and trails can hurt lynx by providing escape routes for snowshoe hares, which can evade the cats in open straightaways, especially if the snow is packed down by dogsleds or snowmobiles. In natural thick, unbroken forest, lynx are usually able to catch their prey.

That’s one reason why the Forest Service proposes to also close about 15 miles of existing roads and trails. Most are overgrown, unmaintained and little used. The largest decommissioning will be 10 miles of cross-country ski trails in Lutsen.

More OHVs

As the popularity of off-highway vehicles increases, the National Forest is also seeking to make it easier for riders to use the forest. To that end, the agency proposes to allow OHVs to use campground roads and sites at several campgrounds in the eastern part of the forest.

The Environmental Assessment notes that this could create noise problems and conflict with other people attempting to use the campgrounds.

“The sound of OHV engines could have a direct impact on other people using the campgrounds. Increased noise as a result of OHV use in the campgrounds is expected to occur when users are leaving and re-entering the campground. OHVs may be used to access campground facilities (such as drinking water, boat landings, outhouses, fee stations) but OHV use in campgrounds is expected to occur primarily when users are leaving and returning to their campsites,” the Forest Service says.

The agency says it doesn’t foresee major issues because campgrounds will not include riding trails, so OHV use should not occur for extended periods of time, and noise pollution already occurs from other sources like generators.

Campgrounds targeted for OHV use include Cascade River, Devil Track Lake, Kimball Lake, Two Island Lake, Eighteen Lake, and Fourmile Lake campgrounds. The Forest Service also proposes to allow OHVs on about seven more miles of Forest Roads, primarily to connect campgrounds and existing trails.

Tribal input

Superior National Forest staff also met with Ojibwe tribal representatives twice and informed them of the proposal in the works, and asked for input. The Treaty of 1854 included a section that clearly states Ojibwe “would continue to have the right to hunt and fish on lands they ceded.” Their involvement in the project is as sovereign nations.

“The [tribal consultation] attendees expressed concern that some of the roads slated for decommissioning were in areas used for activities tied to the exercise of tribal treaty rights, such as moose hunting and gathering of wild rice. Forest Service staff amended the original proposal to address some of the concerns brought forward by the bands,” the Forest Service wrote.

The Draft EA provides an example of one Forest Road in the Lima Mountain Area of the Gunflint District, which was proposed for culvert removal but turned out to be important for tribal access.

“[The road] contains a culvert that is failing which negatively affects aquatic organisms. The original proposal was to remove the culvert. However, after initial tribal consultation, this was determined to be an important area for tribal members exercising treaty rights. Therefore, any changes to this road were removed from the present proposal,” the document says.

Questions and comments:

Send written comments by May 24 to comments-eastern-superior-gunflint@usda.gov or Gunflint Ranger District, 2020 West Highway 61 Grand Marais, MN 55604.

Questions or requests for additional information can be sent to Orry Hatcher, environmental planner, at ohatcher@fs.fed.us.

Please put “East Zone Trails and Roads Project EA” in the subject line of emails.

More information:

Get Quetico Superior Wilderness News straight to your inbox

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap