Our Stories

A State Line, Railroads, Red Clay, Pipelines, and New Partnerships

Categories: Minnesota, News, Trail Maintenance, Volunteer Stories, Wisconsin


A State Line, Railroads, Red Clay, Pipelines, and New Partnerships


by Matthew Davis, NCTA Regional Trail Coordinator for North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin
(Originally published in the Fall 2020 issue, 39.4, of the North Star magazine.)

Patching together landowner permissions for the NCT is sometimes like putting together a very complicated puzzle with odd-shaped pieces. Sometimes the piece you need the most is missing. For the last 10 years, the Brule-St. Croix (BSC) Chapter, Bill Menke, and the Wisconsin DNR have been unable to make a contiguous off-road connection of the NCT in Wisconsin to the Superior Hiking Trail at the Minnesota border… until now. A few of the puzzle pieces are finally coming together in Minnesota!

Currently, the NCT leaves the McQuarrie Wetlands and parallels the Saunders State Trail, a former railroad bed turned multi-use recreational trail, northeast out to CR-C. The NCT is then a road walk north and west to the state line. This area is complicated because the very busy BNSF Railroad crosses right there, as trains haul taconite pellets from the Iron Range to the Great Lakes port at Superior. The only legal place to cross that railroad line is at an existing grade crossing for county roads at the state line. A short walk along the railroad’s service road leads north past Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline to the NCT built on Wisconsin state lands (St. Louis River Stream Bank Protection Area), and that connect with the Superior Hiking Trail at the border. This is the challenging land of wet, red clay soils and steep, continually eroding ravines.

The original NPS route plan called for the NCT to head north from the McQuarrie Wetlands on lands purchased by the State of Wisconsin to the State Line at Military Road/CR-W, but there was one private landowner who was not interested in hosting the Trail or selling to the state. That left a broken connection with few options, because of the railroad blocking the route on the east and other private land blocking the route on the Minnesota side. Bill Menke and Peter Nordgren from the BSC Chapter have been working for the last year plus with Enbridge to obtain an easement that would get the NCT off the railroad service road from the state line to the existing NCT. Enbridge owns this land as part of its pipeline. It appears that this easement may happen soon, which will address one piece of the puzzle.

In spring 2019, Peter Nordgren noticed a For Sale sign on the “White Property” just west of the state line on Military Road. He looked up the property online and contacted the realtor to see if the landowners would be interested in selling all of the parcel. The answer was no and the asking price was way out of the NCTA’s price range – not that we want to own land. This 240-acre property contained two blocks and a narrow corridor that was an old railroad loop, which winds through adjacent Carlton County tax forfeit lands. We started reaching out to partners on both sides of the border to see if anyone would have an interest. Those partners included the Landmark Conservancy, Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota, Minnesota DNR, and Carlton County. Greg Bernu, Land Commissioner of Carlton County, responded immediately that he was definitely interested in the White Property because it would provide access for some landlocked county tax forfeit lands. Greg said that the county could not purchase the property outright, but he sits on an advisory committee that makes funding recommendations for legacy funding in Minnesota. Because of this, he knew it would be possible to apply for grant funding to purchase the property if a conservation partner that could front the money could be found.

In late 2019, he reached out to Pheasants Forever, a national conservation group based in St. Paul, Minn. that “is dedicated to the conservation of pheasants, quail and other wildlife through  habitat improvements, public awareness, education, and land management policies and programs.” They were interested in working with us (NCTA and the county) and were successful in obtaining a $312,650 Conservation Partners Legacy Grant from the State of Minnesota in early 2020. The NCTA and Carlton County each contributed half of the required match ($15,000). Carlton County will ultimately hold and manage the land.

A year later, acquisition of the parcel is nearing completion and we expect the closing to have happened in mid-October. Next, the NCTA will talk with Pheasants Forever about creating a small trailhead parking lot on CR-4. This parking is much needed as hikers on the Superior Hiking Trail who continue hiking into Wisconsin currently have no parking near the state line. We will also enter into a formal agreement with the county on hosting the NCT on “our” lands. Our thanks go out to Greg Bernu for his leadership on this project and to Eran Sandquist, Minnesota State Director for Pheasants Forever, for his diligent work making this a reality.