St. Paul’s Fish Hatchery Trail Closure: An Update

Some of the best biking trails in the Twin Cities, at least in my opinion, are in wooded ares, near lakes or rivers, are quiet and peaceful, and allow you to observe wildlife.  And to have such bike trails within a couple of miles from downtown St Paul is something quite special.

I remember the first time I biked on the Fish Hatchery Trail, the only off-road regional trail that connects downtown St Paul to the SE metro, around 2013. Most of my bike riding is for transit and I typically stick to the Gateway Trail or the Bruce Vento Trail when I bike for recreation.  It was suggested that I explore the Mississippi River Trails a bit more, and riding south and east of Warner Road (east of DNR’s fish hatchery building, hence the trail’s name), and my first time on this trail was such a delight.  The trail leads to the eastern side of Battle Creek Regional Park, a gem and haven for nature lovers from around the Twin Cities. But even back then, the trail wasn’t in great shape.  The trail was bumpy in spots, missing in other spots, but because it has great connectivity to other parts of the city, it’s easy to overlook these issues.

Fish Hatchery Trail erosion, summer 2017

Fast-forward to 2017, when my partner and I bought our first house together, in SE St Paul, south of Battle Creek, on the edge of Maplewood and Woodbury.  I was nervous about us buying a house “so far away” from downtown St Paul, where I had lived for the past 10 years, and a mile from my work.  But it’s only 6.8 miles away, very hilly miles away.  No matter, I thought.  I can bike on the bike trail parallel to Warner Road and take the Fish Hatchery Trail to Battle Creek to very close to my home.  What I didn’t know, because I hadn’t ridden on this trail for a couple of years, that the Fish Hatchery Trail was closed by the city of St Paul in 2016.  I biked from downtown to our new home right before we closed on our house and my heart dropped to see the jersey barriers and closure detours.  I waited one whole day before contacting my future city council member Jane Prince, and the executive director at District 1’s community council at the time, Betsy Leach and the east side representative to St Paul Smart Trips, Tom Thao. I quickly connected to other interested trail users, other east side residents, city, county and state officials.

Sinkhole discovered recently; it’s 80″ deep!

Here’s what I’ve learned in the past year:

    • The trail has been problematic over the last few years, with portions of the trail eroding away routinely.  The city patches it, and it erodes again.  In 2016, the city realized it needed a better, longer-term, and more costly fix.
    • The city maintains the trail but for anything more serious than basic repairs, it’s the MnDOT’s responsibility.  Newly assigned director-level staff were unaware of this trail’s problem or MnDOT’s responsibility to fixing the trail.
    • The current “Fish Hatchery Trail” detour requires bike riders to cross Highway 61 at Burns Ave.  It’s an 8-lane road that bicyclists have to cross.
      • Many cyclists are aware of the detour and still prefer to bike on an eroded, closed trail than go 2.5 miles out of one’s way, each way, a very big deal for commuters and recreational riders alike.  It’s understandable if riders also want to avoid the 61/Burns intersection!
    • City and state leaders held 2 community meetings to discuss the latest developments, possible solutions and next steps:
  • During these meetings, a lively conversation with community members, bike advocates, trail users, and city & state leaders allowed for everyone to share concerns and hear what’s caused the erosion: steep slope + heavy trail material + no solid bedrock for 20+ feet down.  These meetings allowed for good discussions on what some of the solutions could be, as of February 2018:
    • Remove pavement, replace with gravel
    • Build boardwalk around Little Pigs Eye Lake, rebuild or relocate original trail later, keep detour for winter use
    • Keep assessing other options for existing trail

The great news at that time was that the city had explored and tentatively secured funding for building a boardwalk around Little Pigs Eye Lake, which would benefit many community members in addition to temporarily solving the trail use issue!  The funding came from wetland mitigation projects from the St. Paul Port Authority and the National Park Service.  Community members were pleased with this development…until more bad news came our way.  A legacy dump site is in the same area as the proposed boardwalk location.  And because it will take time, money and resources to clean up the boardwalk, city and state officials determined they would not move forward with the boardwalk idea, knowing there’s a likelihood of it having to be removed for remediation.

What’s next?  I’m honestly not sure any longer.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency staff have confirmed there will be a community meeting sometime this summer to discuss the developments of dump site.  It seems that the city and state leaders want to find out the remediation developments before making any further plans regarding the Fish Hatchery Trail.

While this regional trail is the only off-road trail that connects the SE metro to downtown St Paul, and while literally hundreds of us want this trail repaired, replaced, or relocated, we’re going to need to be patient while all of these issues get worked out.  The good news is that this trail is a priority for city, county, and state leaders, and they recognize how many people used or want to use this regional trail. It’s actually part of the Mississippi River Trail (MRT), a 600-mile stretch from the river’s source at Lake Itasca to the Iowa border.  Note: the MnDOT’s MRT maps are dated 2015 and do not have the Fish Hatchery Trail detour marked.

St Paul Women on Bikes is sponsoring a “Fish Hatchery Trail detour ride” on Wednesday, May 16, at 6pm. Meet at the Lower Afton/Point Douglas Road Battle Creek parking lot and routine commuters will lead a detour ride to and from Battle Creek.  Riders will hear the latest from community members and have a chance to provide suggestions for trail redevelopments.

Even as I draft this post, a new sinkhole was reported to me near the portion of the trail that eroded away.  The sinkhole is at least 80″ deep, where you can see water at the bottom of the sinkhole.  City staff have been alerted, and they have marked and coned the hole.  It’s clear that the trail cannot be maintained in its current state, but it is NOT clear what the next steps are.

Moving to a new part of St Paul presented challenges I never anticipated, like how to get to work safely via bicycle and how to work with community members and local, county and state officials on a single issue within my new part of the city.  But it also presented an opportunity for me to advocate for this community amenity that means a lot to many people. Thanks to St Paul Women on Bikes, I had the skills and experience to be able to help organize community meetings and give a voice to many who had no idea where to go on this issue.

No one wants this trail in good condition and rideable more than I do.  But we need to stay off the trail while it’s unsafe and let city and state leaders create a safe, long-term solution to this extremely complex problem.

Melissa Wenzel

About Melissa Wenzel

Car-free bicycle advocate, passionate state employee, union leader. MN's "Industrial Stormwater Sherpa." Human being first, government employee second.

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