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Marty Walsh recently took time off to hike the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota to talk with landowners. It wasn't the first time.

The Rochester man has put in the miles since 2019 to organize a constituency around the idea of a long-distance Minnesota Driftless Hiking Trail (MDHT) over peaks and through river valleys and woodland in Fillmore and Houston counties. Along the way he's picked up allies such as the Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center, the trail project's fiscal representative, and Minnesota Land Trust.

Last month the dream took a significant step. The trail project received a $426,000 grant, part of $77 million distributed to 101 outdoors-related projects recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources.

"Extremely rewarding," said Walsh of the news of the funding. "And a little intimidating."

Next up for the proposed 110-mile path is hiring a coordinator, building a volunteer base and forging more relationships, such as those landowners Walsh has encountered who will be paramount to patching together the MDHT. As much as 70% of the trail could touch private land in Fillmore and Houston counties.

Walsh is an economic development manager with People's Energy Cooperative in Oronoco, serving rural areas near the city. He was similarly employed by Fillmore County in the mid-2020s when his interest in long-distance hiking and backpacking bled into working life. He had a chance to understand the recreational assets of the region, such as the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest and small trails like Lost Creek near Chatfield, about 20 miles southeast of Rochester.

"That initially spawned the idea of, could we link all of these together?" Walsh said.

And he continued to hike. Sections of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin cemented some ideas about the MDHT. Walsh was reminded in mid-2020 of how much of the 1,200-mile Ice Age, established in 1980, still is unfinished. Rural roads still connect parts of the path in places and bring hikers into towns and cities.

"If it works there, even if it is not continuous yet, maybe it can work here," Walsh recalled thinking. "That was the big 'Aha' moment."

Here's some key information to know about the trail project:

The terrain

It will be highly varied over its proposed 110 miles or so, owing to the Driftless Region's geography of bluff-top prairies, steep cliffs, and holler-like woodland areas. Walsh said the existing trails tend to stick to one of those traits. For example, the popular Root River State Trail follows the river valley. "The ability to demonstrate how much and how quickly that landscape changes, I think, will be a defining feature for us," Walsh said.

Demand for a long-distance trail

Walsh wrote in his LCCMR grant proposal that residents and other have expressed interest in a long-distance hiking trail. He has used the Superior Hiking Trail as an example — an opportunity for extended backpacking in northern Minnesota that currently doesn't exist in the southern part of the state. His message: You might not be a hiker, but you know of the Superior Trail and its value of bringing people to a region.

Short-term milestones

Walsh said the trail board is working with the Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center in Lanesboro to hire a trail coordinator, which could happen mid-summer.

Next steps also include creating agreements with the Department of Natural Resources to access state land as part of the trail to come. "It is state forest land but it has different origins, different covenants. It is more complicated than, 'It is a state forest. You can go hiking,'" he said.

The framework for the trail calls for about 70% private and 30% public land, although that ratio and even the exact trail are to be determined. "If a particular group or landowner is outside the corridor but they have 1,000 acres and are really excited, the corridor might move to meet that," Walsh said.

Walsh said existing trails, such as logging roads, will make up the trail starting out as planners "get into the woods" to consider the contours of the path.

"As we develop our volunteer base and a trail plan, we'll get off of those existing contemporary routes onto permanent, dedicated hiking trails," he added.

A hikeable stretch in 2025

The plan is 25 miles of hikeable, designated marked route but including road walks (similar to current parts of the Ice Age) or temporary routing. "It is a realistic but aggressive goal," Walsh said. The capacity of public land to support a quick rollout and agreements with landowners will influence the initial path's location. When the full MDHT is complete, the western terminus will be west of Chatfield, with the eastern trailhead east of Caledonia and near the Mississippi River.

More community support

The trail project is a pilot project in the Empowering Small Minnesota Communities grant program. The connector is the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships. Walsh said the partnership is helping with technical support, such as mapping and a trailbuilding playbook. It also is helping with a outreach strategy to make sure the work is in line with communities' interests and integrates the trail with long-term recreation planning by cities and towns.

Having spent a lot of time in Fillmore County, Walsh said the trail feels like a community-driven project. He said it was important to have local representation on the trail's board.

"There's locals who have lived there a long time," he said. "There's generational history here. Are we truly reaching these pillars of the community? So far I think we have done that well. That is where a lot of our landowner support comes from — people whose family land goes back generations. That we've played that slow and kind of quietly until we were sure we had that has been very helpful."