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Orono nature lover fights mountain bike trail in Bederwood Park

Barbara Schmidt loves nature. Loves it so much, in fact, that she’s given names to individual trees in the woods adjoining her Orono home.

Now Schmidt fears her leafy friends will suffer from a mountain bike trail that the city is permitting to be built in Bederwood Park on Lake Minnetonka’s Stubbs Bay.

The small parcel of woods will be damaged by regular racing traffic from dozens of knobby-tired bikes, she said, and deer, quail and other wildlife may be driven away.

“We’ve had a standing ordinance — no bikes in parks — for years and years,” she said. “These are very, very special park properties. You can’t replace this kind of stuff.”

In June, the City Council approved construction of the bike trail, which was sought by the mountain biking team at Orono High School. Schmidt then sued the city, as well as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District and Orono Schools, claiming the trail would violate the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act.

But the city says it’s a lawsuit “built on sand” and has moved to dismiss the case.

“There is not an idea that the woods are going to be torn down,” said Jared Shepherd, an attorney for the city. “The work contemplated by the approval was very minimal.”

There’s a legitimate public interest, he added, in using the park for recreation, including for a student bike team.

“I think the city allowing a bike trail is very reasonable,” he said.

The DNR and the watershed district have already been dismissed from the suit, according to court documents, because there are no waters or wetlands under their jurisdiction in the park.

“There is no protected water here, which is why the DNR is no longer involved,” Shepherd said. “There is no protected wetland, which is why the watershed district is no longer involved.”

There are also plans to build mountain bike trails in the city’s Lowry Woods Nature Conservation Area. That’s a nearby, wooded, 15-acre parcel, which was donated to Orono in 1994 by the Nature Conservancy as “a nature preserve for scientific, educational and recreational purposes.”

Lowry Woods isn’t part of the current lawsuit. But in a letter to the city, the conservancy warned that it would be watching closely to see whether mountain bike trails would damage the land’s “natural and wooded conditions.” The conservancy asked the city to detail its plan to prevent damage to the woods, noting that if “adverse impacts” result from the bike trails, the conservancy may seek to have the trails removed and restored.

Gabriel Jabbour, a former Orono mayor, also opposes the bike trails. Orono has always viewed itself as “an oasis,” he said, attracting residents who value natural surroundings.

The reason Lowry Woods was donated to the city, he said, “is because we’re trusted. We were the great trusted entity. The woods, in my book, should be woods.”

Orono Schools officials said they have not yet been served with the lawsuit and couldn’t comment on litigation. Coaches of the mountain bike team did not return calls seeking comment.

For Schmidt, who walks in the woods several times a week, the dispute is about preserving land that contains remnants of the Big Woods that stood before white settlers arrived in the 19th century. That’s why she’s named trees, choosing monikers that link them to historical figures from the time the trees first sprouted, the oldest of which is nearly 200 years old.

“We want people to enjoy it,” Schmidt said. “We just don’t want them to destroy it.”

John Reinan • 612-673-7402

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