January–February 2023

From the Editor

Freedom to Roam

Blurring the public-private line with nature trails.

Public lands form the backbone of the outdoor recreation industry, but easements and other access points play an important supporting role. Minnesota DNR’s Walk-In Access program, for instance, pays landowners to open their property to public hunting. Licensed hunters pay a $3 “validation fee” to access the lands. More than 29,000 private acres are open to hunters through the WIA initiative. 

Other outdoor spaces blurring the public-private line include nature trails at conservation-minded housing developments. In Marine on St. Croix, the Jackson Meadow neighborhood offers more than six miles of public, multi-use paths, including seasonal cross-country ski trails that link up with the Nordic trails at William O’Brien State Park. (A 2020 DNR grant jump-started a multi-year program to restore some of the wetlands and native prairies enjoyed by users of the Jackson Meadow trails.) 

I know of a hilltop in Afton that boasts a similar, though less formal, trail system that spans multiple private lots and is open to neighbors for hiking and snowshoeing. Residents blazed the wooded trails themselves, a labor of love that required the removal of buckthorn and other invasive species. 

At the root of many of these projects is a desire to fortify local communities, an idea on full display at the Lost Creek Hiking Trail in southeastern Minnesota. “Trail Share” tells the story of the landowners who came together to build this 6-plus-mile public route that winds through private woods and prairies west of Chatfield. I’m inspired by the neighbors who collaborated on Lost Creek—nature-loving people who simply wanted to share their land with others. The city of Chatfield was inspired as well, and now provides annual funding to help operate the trail.

Considering that the need to conserve our wild spaces and connect folks to nature is as urgent as ever, I’ll be curious to see if public-private outdoor access becomes more commonplace. For now, check out Lost Creek the next time you’re in the Chatfield area. Who knows? It might just inspire you to try a similar project in your community. 

Chris Clayton, editor in chief