Interest in acquiring the Luce Line for a recreational trail was sparked by citizens who had enjoyed other rail-to-trail conversions.
The Luce Line Trail Association was organized to promote the acquisition of the entire line for trail use. Snowmobile clubs, hiking clubs, horse clubs, environmental groups, and suburban Hennepin County towns also promoted the idea.
The Luce Line Trail Association sponsored and published an engineering feasibility report on conversion in 1973 and lobbied the legislature to designate the Luce Line as a state trail.
At that time there were seven other legislatively authorized state trails: the Minnesota Valley, Casey Jones, Country view, Douglas, Glacial Lakes, Root River, and Sakatah Singing Hills.
The Minnesota Legislature passed legislation authorizing the Luce Line in 1973 (Laws of Minnesota, 1973, Section 85.015, Subd. 10.)
In 1975, the DNR acquired a major portion of the right-of-way. The original acquisition of 104 miles of the trail cost $400,000, half from state funds and half from the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation Land and Water Conservation Fund (LAWCON).
By the end of 1977, all but about three miles of right-of-way had been acquired. However, opposition to the trail acquisition by some adjoining landowners was strong, especially on the western end of the trail.
A lawsuit was filed by an organization of adjoining property owners, the Luce Line Trail Owners Association, to block conversion of the rail line to trail use.
These landowners questioned the right of the DNR to purchase the land from the railroad, since they believed that the original contracts for purchase of the land by the railroad stipulated that the land would return to adjoining landowners in the event of abandonment by the railroad.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that recreational trail use was a bona fide public transportation use of rail corridors, and the rights-of-way are therefore not subject to reversion to adjoining landowners.
Landowners also objected to fields being severed by the trail, feared vandalism, and trespass by trail users, and they did not think that the DNR would be able to adequately maintain the trail right-of-way, cattle crossings, and field crossings.
They also thought that this trail was not a wise use of state money, questioned the amount of use the trail would have, and thought that snowmobiling was a fad that would fade, especially with the energy crisis of the 1970s.
These objections culminated in the Minnesota Legislature directing the DNR to sell the westernmost 38 miles of the rail grade to adjoining landowners, affecting the stretch of the trail around Clara City, Prinsburg, Roseland, Blomkest, and Lake Lillian.
Laws authorizing the sale from Gluek to Clara City passed in 1980, and from Cosmos to Clara City in 1981. (MN Statutes 1980, Chapter 614, Sec. 163, and 1981, Chapter 190, Sec. 1.)
Since the original purchase was partially funded by federal LAWCON funds, and federal restrictions prohibit the sale of recreational acquisitions without replacement by other new recreational land, the proceeds of the sale were used to purchase the Willmar to Hawick railroad abandonment in 1990. This is now the Glacial Lakes State Trail.
Interim management plans were written by the DNR in 1974 and 1976, with the first master plan for the Luce Line completed in 1978. The section from Stubbs Bay to Watertown was surfaced with limestone in 1977. Watertown to Winsted was surfaced in 1980.
Development of the western segment languished. The DNR was unable to acquire land to bridge several severances, and funding was not available for bridge reconstruction or trail development. Use west of Winsted was limited to some hiking near towns, hunting, and snowmobile use.
Citizen interest in developing the under-used potential of the Luce Line and in obtaining adequate funding for rehabilitation of the existing tread ways rose in the 1990s with the reactivation of a Luce Line Trail Association. The need for reevaluating the 20-year-old master plan was clear.
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