by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona is still trying to win funding for its project to build miles of new hiking trails — called the Bluffs Traverse — but city officials intend to revise where exactly those trails will be built after receiving a new report about how sensitive and rare the city’s blufflands are.
“This is really an amazing ecological habitat,” Barr Engineering Senior Landscape Architect and Ecologist Fred Rozumalski said of the blufflands stretching from Sugar Loaf to Saint Mary’s University. “This is a bit of a jewel within the local system,” he added.
In 2018, the City Council approved a grand plan for the Bluffs Traverse, which would connect three of Winona’s most iconic destinations — Sugar Loaf, Garvin Heights, and Holzinger Trails — with one continuous trail network with miles of high-quality hiking and mountain biking trails. The project is estimated to cost over $3 million in total, and last year the city applied for but did not receive a $1.7-million grant from the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission (GMRPTC) to complete the first phase of construction.
That 2018 master plan laid out specific routes for the new trails, but last week, city officials said those trail layouts will be revised after Rozumalski’s report highlighted the delicate nature of some bluff ecosystems.
The city hired Barr Engineering to conduct an ecological survey analyzing the plant communities along the Bluffs Traverse and making recommendations for how to conserve them. Last week, Rozumalski gave a presentation on his findings to the City Council and a roomful of outdoor recreation enthusiasts and conservationists.
Beautiful but delicate
Rozumalski’s reports highlighted an array of issues facing the blufflands — from ridgetop runoff fueling erosion to logging opening more doors for invasive species — and made recommendations ranging from adding rain gardens to controlling the deer population. Most notably, it identified numerous spots where bluff ecosystems remain relatively pristine and where Rozumalski advised the city to “avoid new trail construction.”
From woodlawn wildflowers to goat prairies, Winona is blessed to have these beautiful bluffland ecosystems framing the city, Rozumalski said. “It’s really quite steep, which makes it very unique and beautiful … It also makes it more sensitive,” he added.
In some places, the city’s 2018 plan for where to build new trails and the ecological survey’s recommendations for where to avoid building new trails overlap. In a couple locations, the ecological survey’s recommendations could make it difficult to build a continuous trail connecting the entire Bluffs Traverse because sensitive habitats are located at key connection points.
However, city staff said it might still be possible to utilize existing trails in those locations or rely on Rozumalski’s advice for ways to build trails very carefully in sensitive areas.
“In those areas that have a high ecological community ranking, it says you should avoid new trail construction, but if you do have existing trails in this area of if this helps create a continuous system, then you should use those [sustainable trail-building] standards,” Winona Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl stated, adding the city was consulting with Rozumalski about how to redesign the Bluffs Traverse trail layout and that the city would likely have an ecologist on-site for trail construction in any sensitive areas.
“I don’t think it significantly impacts the Bluffs Traverse project,” Ubl said when asked whether the ecological recommendations would affect the city’s overall vision for the trail network. “Are there some adjustments we’re going to need to make? Yes.”
Report highlights logging, other challenges
“When I stepped into it, I was really quite appalled,” Rozumalski said of a section of Holzinger Trails owned by Woodlawn Cemetery that were logged last year. “I understood it was to be selectively harvested. It was clear cut,” Rozumalski asserted.
Woodlawn Cemetery owns a large chunk of the land on which the current Holzinger Trails are built, and that land is a key piece of the city’s plans for the Bluffs Traverse, and cemetery leaders have allowed the public to use those trails on its land. In 2017, the cemetery received a permit from the city to selectively harvest timber from its land, including portions of the existing trail network. Last summer, the city agreed to pay Woodlawn $5,000 a year for the next 25 years plus send city staff to help mow the cemetery and remove diseased trees a few times a year in exchange for a formal trail-access easement. The easement allows the cemetery to log the land after 10 years. Also last summer, some city officials raised concerns about the logging project, claiming that Woodlawn’s contractors didn’t live up to their promise to harvest no more than 30 percent of forest canopy and lamenting the impact to the aesthetics of the trails.
Woodlawn leaders maintained the project followed all conditions and rules imposed by the city and that after the logging, young maple trees would florish.
In his presentation, Rozumalski described the logging as “a wound on the land” that opened the forest to being taken over by invasives such as garlic mustard and buckthorn. “This will not grow into a nice grove of oak … without human guidance,” he stated, recommending the land be managed to combat invasive species and plant native trees. However, it is not the city’s land to manage.
“We’re kind of ceasing the harvest at this point,” Woodlawn Cemetery Superintendent Tim Leahy said in an interview. “We’re not looking at cutting down any trees in the terrace areas,” he said, referring to portions of the cemetery’s land with trails. “Woodlawn Cemetery met all of the expectations and approval [requirements] from the city of Winona on the selective harvest project,” Leahy stated. He added that Woodlawn has always supported the Bluffs Traverse project because of its benefit for the community.
Rozumalski’s report also highlighted the erosion caused by stormwater drains that run straight from the Wincrest neighborhood into steep, bluffside ravines. He recommended that the city could narrow the streets in that neighborhood by eliminating one parking lane and replacing it with boulevard rain gardens to capture runoff and mitigate erosion.
Invasive species are a major problem and the city should step up its management of buckthorn, garlic mustard, oriental bittersweet, and a host of emerging invasive species, Rozumalski stated.
“This is the number-one issue, I would say. If you can do nothing else for the Traverse, please control the deer population,” Rozumalski told the City Council. Deer populations are so dense in this area that they completely wipe out patches of wildflowers, he reported. The ecologist recommended the city work with the Department of Natural Resources on options for controlling the population, such as controlled hunts.
City Council member Pam Eyden called on city staff to make sure the final ecological survey includes information on rare bird species nesting in the bluffs. In an interview she said, “We just need to know that we’re not doing damage, and I think we can go ahead and get that information and incorporate it [into our plan].”
As of last week, Rozumalski had not completed his formal written report on the ecological survey. Ubl said city staff would post that report to the city website within a week or so. As of press time, the full report had not been posted to the city website. Ubl stated that the city would seek public feedback on the report before it went to the City Council for approval.
No funding on first try
Winona did not win Legacy Amendment funding for the Bluffs Traverse on its first go around.
The city applied for $1.7 million in funding last year from the GMRPTC. It was Winona’s first attempt at winning the constitutionally dedicated Legacy funding for parks and trails statewide, and if it had been awarded, it would have been the first project in Southeast Minnesota outside Olmsted and Goodhue counties funded by the GMRPTC. Out of 22 projects seeking funding, the GMRPTC recommended nine to receive a total of $9.9 million. Once again, the only projects in Southeast Minnesota to receive funding were located in Olmsted or Goodhue counties.
“That’s how it goes,” Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said of the city’s unsuccessful first attempt. “It’s much like applying for state [bonding] money for projects, you typically don’t get funded right off the bat. Even a lot of the university projects — with all of the efforts they put in — they’re put on a list. The important thing is to persevere. It’s to fine tune your plan, to get more interest, and to stick with it.”
Sarvi and Ubl noted that the Bluffs Traverse plan scored highly in GMRPTC rubrics and the city received helpful feedback on how to make it even better. “Our attitude is, we’re going to apply until we get it,” Ubl stated.
Now Winona officials plan to revise the Bluffs Traverse trail layouts in time to apply for Legacy Amendment funding again this summer.
When asked, Ubl said he would release the new trail layouts to the public and seek public feedback on them before applying for funding this summer.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.