Mesabi Iron Range takes action on mountain bike trails

An iron ore dust-stained mountain bike tire. PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown

Last week brought a very busy Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board meeting. In addition to discussions of reform and school funding, the board also green-lighted the commissioner’s plan to fund three mountain bike trails on the Mesabi Iron Range.

The almost $5 million grant package helps volunteer-based organizations and Giants Ridge develop three distinct trail systems near Biwabik, Chisholm and Cohasset.

The Giant’s Ridge trail adds mountain biking to a multi-use skiing facility. It also adds more opportunities for year-round use at a facility that has struggled financially.

The Tioga trail near Cohasset has been in the works for a while. It’s a product of the Grand Rapids and Itasca Mountain Biking Club. I wrote about it a couple years ago.

The smallest trail is the Redhead, located on a mine dump just outside Chisholm. The Iron Range Off-Road Cyclists Club and others have pushed that concept. The experience there will resemble riding through a canyon and include mining vistas and artifacts.

There’s already a mixed use trail system on Lookout Mountain along the Laurentian Divide near Virginia.

Taken together, these Mesabi Range trails join internationally acclaimed trail systems on the Cuyuna Iron Range near Crosby and in the regional center in Duluth. Essentially, Northern Minnesota will become one of the country’s elite mountain biking destinations.

Despite the victory, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for the mountain bike proposal. In classic IRRRB fashion, ideas had to be digested by the monster with nine heads, each with its own ax to grind.

As Kraker’s story points out, State Sen. Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook), also the Senate Majority Leader, was the lone “no” vote on the trails:

While the board was still debating the proposal, Bakk said he got a text from the Ely Echo newspaper, asking, “You’re going to spend $5 million on bike trails? How about a million for an ATV trail?”

Bakk said the trail projects should first try to secure funding from the state’s parks and trails fund, which receives sales tax revenue from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment.

He worries other proposed trails in northeastern Minnesota could now lose out on that funding, including a proposed 100-mile mountain bike trail system in Lake County, between Two Harbors and Tettegouche State Park.

“It’s just a matter of timing to me,” Bakk said. “Please leverage some money from somewhere else before you come running here for every dime of taconite money that we’re trying to use for job creation.”

Let’s just pause for a moment to recognize that a local newspaper covering the meeting was actively lobbying the board while the meeting was going on. We see you Ely Echo.

The social media commentary on the MPR story became its own horror show, full of anti-bike, anti-environmentalist screeds, coupled with dismissive comments about Bakk and his arguments. In other words, people flung themselves into the same “Us vs. Them” arguments that poison economic development and recruitment efforts in our region.

Let’s look at this differently.

I’d simply point out that we’ve closed the loop between the Cuyuna Iron Range and Duluth to create a massive regional mountain biking attraction. No, not the cure for all that ails the region, but a collaborative step forward in attracting people to the area.

It’s frankly pretty stupid that “bikes” would be seen as the enemy of ATVs or snowmobiles. We’ve got trails all over this region. If you like motors, pedals, or skis, you’ve got plenty of options throughout Northern Minnesota.

On the Range, we need people. We need excitement. We need positive attitudes that build community. That’s what I see here. That’s how we should move forward.

When I talk to new residents on the Range, do you know what they tell me? They love the edge of town. They love climbing dumps and exploring the unique landscapes of our mining edifices. That’s what mountain biking gives them. That’s what recreational trails on reclaimed minelands give us.

Listen. Shut up and listen to the people we want to stay and those we want to attract. And then act.


  1. Ben Wallace says

    The “haters” must have it pretty good if they want to keep everything out. The northern MN mindset has always perplexed me (grew up there; lived there for 22 years). “Change? Not on my watch.” But, when local businesses/economies that rely on tourism are driven out by the giants that can absorb losses at store x of x,xxx, don’t whine when you can shop only at a non-union store.

    Embrace change, folks.

  2. David Gray says

    Bike trails bring in a lot more outside money from users than ATV trails do. They also don’t damage local property the way ATVs do nor do they provide the same kind of noise pollution. I’m glad to see the other ranges following our lead.

    • independant says

      First off I like this idea and want lots of multi use recreation opportunities around. However I can tell you that ATV, UTV and off-road motorcycles can bring much more dollars than Mt. Bikes per vehicle/bike. Its not even close. I have traveled the country for 25 years utilizing off road riding areas and tracks and if you can put together a destination riding area you would have groups coming in with RV’s and Trailers that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and trust me these folks spend money. We don’t have anything like that here in Minnesota (Gilbert OHV area is a start but pretty small potatoes) but I think it would be great also.

  3. Marshall Helmberger says

    A little more context might be in order on the text to Tom Bakk from “the Ely Echo.” I’m sure the text came from Nick Wognum. While he is general manager at the Echo, he is also the chair or co-chair of the Prospector Trail ATV project, and I’m sure that his text was in that capacity, not as an Echo rep. As you know, some people wear a lot of hats in our small towns. I’ve worn more than a few myself over the years.

    • Fair enough, Marshall. That context wasn’t clear. I’ve got my own grab-bag of conflicts of interest. It’s the instantaneous nature of communication that puts these conflicts front and center, though. That’s why I’m very big on disclosures.

  4. Amen. I know I was sceptical a week ago, but it can’t hurt to try something. We had fun doing this when I was a kid on our Schwinn Typhoons, why not now? The idea is starting to grow on me.

    With over 100 miles of Mesabi, there should be room for everyone. Now, let’s keep it simple for licenses, use permits, etc., and see what happens.

    The Range is ideal for just about any type of off road recreation, let’s make use of it.

  5. Danny McCullough says

    I think a community should embrace both the motorized and non-motorized user groups. Both will bring great benefits to rural communities, and give more reason for young people to stay in the area vs move away to larger cities. You have to give people a quality place to live if you want them to stay. Change is coming- the economy is changing and the next generation does not care as much for material things or big houses. They will be spending their money on experiences, like travel and mountain biking. I love this resurgence of outdoor activity that is coming our way. By the way, I spend at least $50 -$150 per day when I visit Cuyuna, which is at least 4 times per year.

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