A Tale of Two Trails

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

folks who like to hike. They both help attract visitors and boost tourism. The Lake Superior Trail runs north from Jay Cook State Park along the north shore of Lake Superior. The North Country National Scenic Trail (NCNST) crosses far northern Wisconsin on its way from New York to North Dakota.

This is a story of these two trails and efforts to combine them. But it is also a story of the difficulty of getting anything done, no matter how minor, in our current dysfunctional political world. It shows how facts don’t matter and image is everything. It is a story of how political correctness and ideological purity can lead to simple foolishness.

For many years these two trails have been trying to officially merge. This makes sense for many financial, administrative, and marketing reasons. This minor administrative action would be good for everyone and is opposed by almost no one. It would save money and volunteer efforts. But the North Country Trail is part of the National Scenic Trail system under the National Park Service.

These trails are created by Congress so any changes to the route of the North Country Trail must have approval from Congress. There’s the rub. What one would think is a simple matter for a Park Service official to authorize becomes a political issue. So for close to a decade the legislation to merge the trails has been lost in the shuffle and partisan maneuvering of the legislative process.

Representative Sean Duffy, northern Wisconsin’s congressman, is not supporting this legislation (NCNST Route Adjustment Act HR 1026). This is a recent change in his position. In the past he was at least nominally supportive. Nothing ever actually happened but at least he did not openly oppose the measure. Now Rep. Duffy is claiming that the National Park Service (NPS) has more to do than they can handle and therefore should not be given more land to manage.

He points to the large park maintenance backlog as a reason to not authorize the trail merger. This is an ironic and disingenuous argument given that conservative Republicans, like Duffy, are largely responsible for this backlog. They are the ones pushing the budget cuts that created the backlog.

It also appears, based on communications with Duffy’s office, that the standard conservative opposition to “big government” is a factor. As the radical right has become more visible and outspoken Duffy has moved to the right on many issues. So in addition to cutting government budgets, appearing to support government programs of any kind is to be avoided.

To pander to this base he must adopt the far right’s unfounded fears of government “ownership” and the “taking” of private property rights. Of course, all this is paranoia and misinformation. But policy decisions based on accurate information or the best science is NOT a common practice for radical conservatives.

So let’s review the history and see what the legislation actually does and does not do. Here are some facts that Duffy is either not aware of, or is ignoring.

NO NEW LAND WILL BE ACQUIRED BY THE NPS. The merger makes official the de facto route of the NCNST in Minnesota. It simply makes Minnesota’s Superior Hiking, Border Route and Kekekabic Trails officially part of the NCNST. Since 2005, hikers have adopted this Arrowhead route. The only things missing are the official signs, and the opportunity for local communities to derive tourism benefits from the official designation.

While the National Park Service is the designated agency for administering the North Country Trail, it actually owns less than 50 miles of the trail. The rest of the 4600 miles of the trail crosses land that is owned by states, counties, federal forests, land trusts, non-profits groups and private land owners. Easements are used to allow access for the trail.

These easements are negotiated through the North Country Trail Association which is a private nonprofit that builds and maintains the trail using volunteers. Eminent domain is not used to acquire land or easements.

FEDERAL CONTROL OF LAND IS NOT INCREASED. Management of the lands on which the trail is located is done by the landowner in cooperation with local volunteers, local and state agencies, and the National Park Service. This partnership is a model for how governments, communities and private citizens can leverage each other for the common good, without adding in federal control.

 

All of these trails are built and maintained by volunteers. The NPS does not budget for this work so this does not involve the maintenance backlog at all. REP. DUFFY IS WRONG THAT THIS WILL INCREASE NPS MAINTENANCE PROBLEMS.

THE MERGER WILL COST TAXPAYERS LESS! Although the nominal length of the trail will increase by 540 miles most of this will be by adding existing, volunteer built trail. The net result is that only 100 miles will need to be built in Minnesota. This will be easier and cost much less than constructing the many boardwalks and bridges through the original swampy Minnesota route. Taxpayers will pay less by merging the trails.

Costs associated with trail building will be absorbed in the existing NPS budget or covered by partner fund-raising and the sweat equity of the volunteers. The NPS has only 3.5 employees assigned to the NCNST. Thousands of volunteers provide a multiplier effect and return $5.17 for every federal dollar invested. This type of public/private partnership is often advocated by conservatives for administering programs.

But Duffy can’t set aside his anti-government dogma even to support this simple win-win for everyone. How can he be trusted to act in the best interests of the people on major issues like healthcare, war, or budgets? If you are a Wisconsin resident (or you like to hike these trails) please contact his office to support our trails and the re-route legislation.