Q: Trails and Waterways seems to have a broad scope of duties. What all is your division responsible for?
We provide recreational opportunities across the board, from hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing to riding off-highway vehicles and snowmobiles. We also manage all of the public water accesses, fishing piers, and 30 designated water trails for canoeing and kayaking. And we run the Adopt-A-River program that encourages volunteers to clean up our rivers, as well as manage the safe harbors on Lake Superior that provide access and harbors of refuge for boaters.
Q: It also seems that Trails and Waterways has a dual mission, providing public access to natural areas while protecting natural resources. How does your division balance those two goals?
Our state trails offer a perfect example of that balance. We have more than 1,200 miles of state trails in Minnesota. For many of those trails, the DNR owns a 100-foot strip of land and only about 10 to 12 feet of that width is developed for the actual trail. That gives us an opportunity for natural resource management in the remainder of that corridor. That's why you'll see native plants alongside many of our trails, and you'll see DNR staff out on state trails conducting prescribed burns. State trails are portals for outdoor recreation, but they also expand natural areas across Minnesota.
Another function of state trails, I think, is public education. Children aren't as engaged in the outdoors as they used to be. But if kids ride their bikes on a state trail and see an interpretive sign that explains how wetlands provide clean water, they'll at least realize water doesn't just come from a tap.
Q: Are there plans to build more state trails?
The Minnesota Legislature has authorized an additional 1,300 miles of state trails. Currently, we have funding to build 75 miles of those trails over the next two years. The rest will be built as funding becomes available.
Q: This being winter, many of our readers are probably skiing and snowmobiling now. What is the state of the DNR's winter trails?
Minnesota has 700 miles of cross-country ski trails and more than 20,000 miles of snowmobile trails. Both trail systems are in good shape, thanks largely to the dedicated user groups that maintain most of our winter trails. The DNR awards grants to local units of government to maintain our grant-in-aid trails. Those government units then work with local cross-country ski and snowmobile clubs to get the actual trail work of clearing brush and posting signs done. The DNR does all the maintenance on our 21 state trails. And all of the funds raised from ski and snowmobile trail passes goes to trail maintenance. So when you buy a trail pass, you're investing in the trails you use.
Q: Looking to summer, many Minnesotans can't wait to get on the water. What is the state of Minnesota's public water accesses?
We've got 1,560 public accesses at lakes and rivers, and most are in great shape. But we've seen changes in the boats at these accesses. Over the past 20 years, boat sizes have grown from an average of 14 feet to over 17 feet, and the average boat motor has increased from 30 horsepower to 100 horsepower. These changes mean that we often have to go back to our public accesses and lengthen boat ramps or redesign parking lots. In doing so, we also get to redesign public accesses we built several years ago with native plantings, stormwater retention ponds, and shoreland restoration. It's that balance thing again, providing public access to state waters while also demonstrating best practices in lakeshore management.
Q: Obesity is discussed as one of the primary public health threats of our time. You have given speeches about trails and public health. How do trails make people healthier?
About 40 percent of people don't get any exercise at all. Trails offer free and convenient access to recreational activities that can prevent heart disease, lower cholesterol, and assist with weight control. Our trail surveys indicate that people utilize our state trails for exercise. They are great for all ages, because they provide a place where hikers and bikers don't have to compete with car traffic.