Unhappy Trails

Guthrie, Minnesota, is not much more than a sleepy little huddle of buildings nestled between Lake Itasca and Leech Lake. It’s classic lake country, where tourists have been coming to summer resorts for generations. Cabin season is short and the impact of tourism can be dramatic, especially since logging and mining have ebbed. The locals have quietly tried to adapt. Here, the famous Paul Bunyan Trail, which runs one hundred miles from Brainerd to Bemidji, is still unpaved. Maps describe the Guthrie section as “natural surface,” which means it is open primarily to snowmobile use in the winter. It is a dirt-and-gravel path that used to be a railroad. The plan is eventually to pave it for bicycles, in-line skaters, and dog-walkers. Today, though, it is penned in by “No Trespassing” signs and a cloud of animosity, rather than the pizza and ice-cream joints that typically sprout up along state trails. As if to wear its troubles like a war scar, the trail here is badly damaged, torn up by outlaw ATVs, which aren’t supposed to use the trail but do anyway.

In a scrubby spot a few miles outside of Guthrie, the trail runs across the property of Brian and Mike Sandberg. Despite their desire simply to be left alone, the Sandbergs may be the most famous men in the county. Along with some of their neighbors, they are involved in a case that is now under consideration by the Minnesota Supreme Court. They believe they own the land on which the trail is built, and they’re asking the court to close their section of the Paul Bunyan Trail and give it back. If they win the case, it could be the beginning of the end for recreational trails in Minnesota and across the nation.

Though he grew up in the Guthrie area and owns seventy acres here, Brian Sandberg is an itinerant welder. He works construction jobs in Iowa and Missouri, where he specializes in fabricating huge agricultural tanks. Brian told me he desperately wants to return and retire on his land, although he claims the controversy, and the actions of the Minnesota Department of Resources, have made that impossible. But it’s not clear what stands in his way.

His brother Mike lives in a tidy new home on twenty acres adjoining Brian’s. Marlaine and Mike are a pleasant, fiftyish couple. Clad in shorts, with his dirty blond hair casually brushed back, Mike Sandberg could easily pass for a tourist on his way to jig for walleyes. He is quietly intense as he walks with me on the Bunyan trail, which runs just a few yards from his house. A muscular black dog dashes out menacingly from behind the garage. But Sunny is only trolling for playmates as she prances around mouthing a tattered tennis ball. Mike shows me where he and some of his neighbors erected barricades across the path, and where DNR crews tore them down. The tension hangs like the humidity in the summer air. It’s difficult to think of humble Guthrie as the vortex of a bitter fight involving property-rights advocates, barricaded trails, local recreational businesses, snowmobilers, ATV jockeys, and spandex-clad bicyclists.

Minnesota has thirteen hundred miles of recreational trails. Most were built on narrow strips of land that once were owned by railroads. Minnesota’s first modern trail was built on a former railroad corridor near Pipestone. The Casey Jones State Trail opened in 1967 and was so successful that it set a pattern for the following thirty years: As the railroad industry yielded to overland trucking and air transport, the state would purchase abandoned rail corridors from companies like Burlington Northern for the purpose of developing them into public trails. In fact, the idea of converting miles of disused rail easement into recreational trail was so successful that bike and jogging paths began proliferating all over the country. National organizations such as the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy began springing up “to enrich America’s communities and countryside by creating a nationwide network of public trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors.” But, as it turns out, they were making two huge assumptions: that the railroads actually owned the land they were selling, and that Americans would universally embrace the idea of a public trail. The Sandbergs are here to say that neither assumption was sound. They don’t want the trail, they say the land legally belongs to them, and they intend to prove it in court.

Mike sees the issue in straightforward terms: “What it all boils down to is that Brian has an abstract which states that when they stop using that property for railroad purposes that it reverts back to the landowner. Now Brian has land that he cannot even get to.” According to the Sandbergs, there is no access to Brian’s land other than the former railroad grade that is now the Bunyan trail. But this is a little misleading, because, according to Mike himself, the DNR offered to provide access by building a tunnel or a road, at state expense, through the grade. It seems their main problem is less with a stretch of trail than with the idea of government, and its arrogant bureaucrats trampling on the Sandberg’s private property rights. The idea that the state can exercise its will at the expense of a property owner is abhorrent to them.

And their stubborness may have basis in law. There are two legal issues in their case with the DNR, and considering that it has landed in the state’s highest court, their chances are better than even. First, was the railway abandoned prior to the land being turned over to the state? Even though the railroad finished removing tracks by 1987, there is still a dispute in the community, as well as in the courts, about what constitutes abandonment. After all, right-of-way is a legal principle, and the question becomes whether the railroad had the right to cede its rights to the state, instead of to the current holder of the deed. Did the original 1898 deed give actual title to the land, or simply an easement to use it—and would it make a difference? And when the railroad abandons an easement, to whom do the rights revert—the current landowners, or the owners at the time the easement was granted (in many cases, the state)? This most contentious issue hinges on verbiage written into deeds more than a century ago, when the railroad first appropriated land.

Brian Sandberg’s property abstract says, “so long as the land shall be used for Right of Way and for Railway purposes; but to cease and terminate if the Railway is removed from the said strips.” That language seems pretty clear. But weighed against the possibility of throwing the entire state trail system into disarray, or at least into the courts, one can see why trail advocates might quibble just the same.

Marlaine and Mike’s home, a tidy pre-fab, was built in Canada and trucked onto his property two years ago. He is still putting siding up on parts of the house. The quarter-mile road leading to the home runs parallel to the old rail easement.

Mike bought his property from Brian. The rest of what Brian owns is, according to Mike, “landlocked.” Brian farmed some of that land, and used the railroad grade to get to it. “We had it blocked off, I think, since 1998,” says Mike. “He had cattle. He just ran them across it.” From the Sandbergs’ point of view, there was nothing broken, and therefore nothing to fix. The DNR’s offers to compensate Brian, build a tunnel, or otherwise work out a solution allowing him to legally cross the trail fell on deaf ears. The Sandbergs see any claim to or meddling with their land as unreasonable.

This was not the first time that local residents have had issues with the DNR. Some had worked out deals, but the Sandbergs and a few others were not willing to compromise. Some placed barricades across their sections of trail. The DNR responded by removing the fencing. Landowners only became more enraged. “DNR officials think they can do whatever they want,” says Mike Sandberg. After a feeble negotiation and intense posturing on both sides, the DNR took the landowners to court. Hubbard County District Judge Jay Mondry ruled that the Burlington Northern Railroad had title to the property and that the sale of land purchased by the DNR in 1991 for $1.5 million was legal.

The Sandbergs and the other landowners fought back, adamant that the language in the 1898 deeds clearly transferred ownership of the hundred-foot-wide sections of land back to them if the land was abandoned by the railroad. So they took the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Last September, the state Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the landowners. The court ruled that the railroad only had easement to the land, which ended when the tracks were removed.

At the DNR’s Division of Trails and Waterways, officials were thrown into a panic; suddenly the trails themselves were embattled. Tasting victory, the Sandbergs and others in Guthrie began erecting fences barricading the Bunyan trail, and the practice threatened to spread. As Mike Sandberg explains, “There are a lot of people on down the line here who have this same language in their deeds.” Immediately, the DNR asked the Supreme Court to overturn the appellate court’s decision. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case, and began doing so last February.

Trail advocates came together quickly. The Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota, the Paul Bunyan Trail Association, and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the DNR position. Surely, they said, there is a great deal at stake here.

Nationally and locally, trail use by pedestrians, bicyclists, in-line skaters, and others is on the rise. Millions use rail-trails each year, and they spend a lot of money. Food and drinking receipts in Lanesboro, Minnesota, increased by eighty-four percent the year after the Root River State Trail opened there. The Cannon Valley Trail in Red Wing and the Willard Munger Trail in Duluth are models of success in every measurable way. Tourism and recreation are big business, and the trail system is an integral component of what Minnesota has to offer. But some people reject the emerging tourist economy. Brian Sandberg would rather travel hundreds of miles to the south to find welding work than cater to bicyclists on a weekend jaunt from the Twin Cities.

Plenty of people in Guthrie see their community as a haven. Theirs is a lifestyle removed from the clamor of outsiders. Mike says, “If we wanted to live in town, we would live in town. You don’t want people running around in your backyard. It’s ownership, pure and simple.”

From the trail advocate’s perspective, opposition to trails is simply fear of change. Terry McGaughey is credited with conceiving and naming the Bunyan trail and now acts as volunteer coordinator for the Paul Bunyan Trail Association. McGaughey moved from the Twin Cities to Bemidji in 1968. He was instrumental in introducing the idea of the Paul Bunyan Trail to the state Legislature, which first authorized the trail in 1988. McGaughey suggested that opposition to trails fades once trails are fully developed. Although the unsurfaced, rutted base of the rail bed is perfect for ATVs, once the trails are fully improved, the nuisance of illegal use goes away. The Sandbergs admit they have never seen or heard a bicycle on the trail passing through their land—though a mountain bike could easily ride it. It’s actually the noise of ATVs and the obtrusive behavior of ATV riders that is most irksome.

Motorized vehicles other than snowmobiles are legally prohibited on the trail. McGaughey understands that no one wants ATVs running around his land, but insists that the problem vanishes once the trails are complete. He stresses the health, fitness, recreational, and economic aspects of the trails. He points out that the trail has expanded the tourist season for local businesses, and effectively turned the community into a year-round attraction. McGaughey said that there is actually a lot of enthusiasm and pride for the trails in communities where they have been completed. Portions of the Paul Bunyan Trail that are paved and complete have become an attractive destination for perfectly well-behaved bicyclists, hikers, and snowmobilers. This has created and expanded businesses at just about every point along the trail. Trails preserve the environment, create parkland, cultivate community pride, and preserve a corridor of green space that can help dampen the effects of urban sprawl—an ugly reality that threatens recreation and natural resources even this far north.

But the Sandbergs aren’t really interested. In a January 24 letter to the Brainerd Dispatch, Brian Sandberg wrote:

One of the reasons for writing this letter is to let the public know that there are still many of us, that are willing to take the time and money to fight for our Constitutional rights and to ensure that local and state governments can not come in and take property from one person and give to another, in the name of progress or for play. And after the final decision is made, I should have the right to use, sell, rent, or donate any part of the nine-acre strip in question. And also, there is great hope for those, that after the last decision is made on this case, hundreds of Minnesotans will have their rights restored. And they will also have the same right to use their property as they wish.

On the phone from Iowa, Brian’s voice is raspy. He speaks in the odd, vaguely Southern accent of men everywhere who see themselves as hardworking and close to the land. He talks about how he quit his job in Alaska and drove four thousand miles in fifty-below weather, moving back to the lower forty-eight in order to fight for his property rights. For such a rugged man, he has many fears: He strongly believes that the trail will drive property values down and lead to crime, primarily manslaughter and rape. His wife is afraid to live alone back in Guthrie, while he is on the road welding. He says it is an outrage that he was threatened with being charged as a public nuisance for putting up “No Trespassing” signs on his own property. “It just pissed me off,” he hisses. Brian also refers to the web page of the National Association of Reversionary Property Owners, which claims that its “major goal is to assist property owners in maintaining their complete land ownership and resisting government confiscation.”

Dorian Grilley, executive director of the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota, is more philosophical. Grilley doesn’t expect much of a problem elsewhere in Minnesota, even if the Supreme Court rules in the Sandbergs’ favor. In other parts of the state, the sequence of abandonment of the rail easement actually favors the DNR’s acquisition plans. If the courts rule against the DNR in this case, it won’t exactly be the end of the line. The fact of the matter is that the state really can “do what it wants” no matter how loudly the Sandbergs or anyone else protest. Grilley puts a point on it: “The state Legislature certainly has the right to compensate the landowners and take the property.” However, this would mean that in some instances the state would have to pay for the property twice. “Millions of people use the trails each year and there is an increased awareness of the value they serve. The outcome will depend on the community and on statewide values,” Grilley says.

Dick Kimball, the DNR’s longtime manager of Trails and Waterways, lives and works in the Paul Bunyan Trail area and knows just about everybody involved in the issue. Though some might think of him as an evil agent of the government, Kimball is actually a thoughtful man who understands the need to balance limited resources and the difficulty of reconciling various community interests. Kimball spoke frankly about the growing pressure on resources. “In the Park Rapids, Walker, and Bemidji area, there are probably 150,000 people up here at any given time. I lived in Walker, and the traffic today is fifteen times what it was in 1980. Our biggest issue with these state trails right now is money for maintenance and staff visibility. The more often people see our officers on that trail, the less likely it is that there will be problems. Right now, Brian and Mike are right: The ATV traffic on that unmaintained, unused trail is incredible. In my twenty-five years up here, this is the most contentious issue I have had to deal with. We work on rectifying things without going to the legal side, but some people are bullheaded. Now, whatever the courts decide, we will all have to live with it. It should never have gotten to this point. We should have worked it out.”

Often the issue comes down to competing ideas about how the environment should be managed and used. Yuppies from the city sometimes believe it should all be off-limits to motor vehicles and logging; locals want to be able to drive ATVs; landowners want everybody to stay away. “People think this is a wilderness area,” said Kimball. “This is not wilderness. It’s a working forest. What we have to do is balance all of our uses, and that’s the goal of our planning process. We are attempting to separate and zone the forest. In 1971, snowmobiles came within one vote of being banned in Minnesota because of all the issues: trespass, damage to private property, wildlife harassment.”

In some senses, the Pandora’s box has been opened. If the Sandbergs can enforce the language of their original deed, what’s to stop anyone who lives adjacent to disused rail corridor from doing the same? The court itself cannot answer the real question: For an opinionated, hard-working middle-class person, is a solitary, backwoods lifestyle even possible in the already changed economy of what was once Minnesota wilderness? Is Brian Sandberg an intractable mouthpiece for landowners’ rights or a grumpy migratory industrial worker stubbornly attempting to hold onto a dream?