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Public pleads for preservation of elm trees in Highway 61 corridor

It was nearly standing room only in Grand Marais City Hall for a Minnesota Department of Transportation public information meeting on Thursday, August 8. The purpose of the meeting was to share information on the scheduling of the road reconstruction work planned for Highway 61 in 2020 and 2021.

The meeting was set to run from 4 to 6 p.m. starting with a time for discussion of the project. There were large maps of the construction area, taped to the wall and spread across a long table. The plan was to have a brief presentation by MnDOT officials at 5 p.m. However, by 4:30 p.m. the chairs in the room had been filled with about 60 people, with many giving impassioned pleas for preservation of the elm trees in the road reconstruction area.

Of the 11 elm trees in the section of Highway 61 from the intersection by Voyageur Brewing to the intersection by Buck’s Hardware, nine are earmarked for removal.

There were many comments about how important the trees are to the aesthetics of Grand Marais, as well as for cooling shade and environmental benefits. 

There was also a great deal of frustration over the report put together by the MnDOT arborist which says the elm trees along the highway are in poor to moderate health. After the idea of removing the trees from the road right of way was brought forward at a February 27, 2018 meeting, some citizens sought another opinion. Another arborist visited Grand Marais and inspected the trees.
This second report conflicts with the MnDOT report and says the trees are in fair to good condition, with many trees listed as very good condition.

However, the report has been called into question because the arborist who compiled it preferred to be unnamed.

Highway 61 Project Manager Michael Kalnbach said he had never received a copy of that report. He added that because the report’s author was unnamed, MnDOT would likely not take it into consideration. However, he said he would like to see the report.

Members of the public asked MnDOT to consider hiring a third, impartial arborist to conduct a study on the health of the trees.
Kalnbach and Project Engineer Andrew Demming both noted that the project is complicated by the number of things happening along with the road reconstruction, utility work, stormwater system improvements and the removal of contaminated soil by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Four of the trees marked for removal are because of work being conducted by the MPCA during road reconstruction. MPCA plans a major excavation and removal of soil from the Cobblestone building to the Harbor Inn parking area.

Some commenters asked MnDOT to reconsider the placement of the bike path to allow the trees to remain. MnDOT officials replied that the trees were not being moved because of the bike path, but to place the stormwater system and utilities. Citizens asked MnDOT to reconsider a reroute of that work.

There were questions about completely halting the project to consider other alternatives. Kalnbach said it would be difficult at this point, as the construction agreement with the city had been finalized and the bidding process completed. KGM Contractors of Angora, Minn. was the successful bidder for the work.

Kalnbach said he wasn’t sure what would happen if the approximately $21 million project was dropped or changed significantly at this point, but said the company would have to be reimbursed in some manner.

There were questions about the history of the project. People wanted to know who made the decision to do the roadwork and to remove the trees. MnDOT Engineer Duane Hill gave a brief history of the work that had been done and the number of public meetings that held been held.

Overall, the public meeting seemed frustrating for all – for the MnDOT officials who believed the project had been finalized and who came to the meeting to talk about the project work schedule.

And it was frustrating for the members of the public who hadn’t heard about the project and the removal of the trees.

It appears, at this point, that the Highway 61 project through Grand Marais will continue as planned. Tree clearing is set to begin in November 2019, not just in the City of Grand Marais, but at several sites where culverts will be replaced along Highway 61.
For more information, visit the MnDOT website or the Grand Marais City website, or call City Hall at 218-387-1848.