Trails and their gateway communities: A case study of recreational use compatibility and economic impacts

Place: Burnett and Polk Counties


A 98-mile rail trail in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota attracts roughly 46,400 visits per year, with trail users spending $118 per trip, on average. Despite high visitation and spending, the trail’s economic impact could be increased with better connections between nearby towns, and through businesses-like bike shops that target trail users.


This study provides an example of how to collect year-round trail user data, particularly important in places where user types differ substantially between seasons and with potential conflicts between the user types. This research is relevant for trail managers interested in better understanding motorized and non-motorized complementary or conflicting priorities and needs. Although the results may differ in other locations, this study provides an example of different ways to analyze user data.

The user expenditure and economic impact piece of the analysis should be interpreted with care, as it is unclear how the researchers accounted for visitor versus local spending.


The Wisconsin portion of the trail, the focus of this study, runs through rural Burnett and Polk Counties, Wisconsin. These counties’ populations were 15,328 and 43,437, respectively, in 2014.

Trail Type

The Gandy Dancer Trail is 98 miles long and runs through small towns in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. The southern section of the trail, the focus of this survey, has a crushed limestone surface and is 47 miles long. Primary uses are walking and cycling in the summer; snowmobiles are allowed during the winter.


This study has two main purposes. The first purpose is to collect comprehensive, primary data on trail use and trail-related expenditures on a popular trail, to provide trail managers with a better understanding of who the users are, how user types interact, how well nearby towns are meeting trail user needs, and what economic impact the trail may have. The second purpose is to develop an approach to measure user compatibility on the trails. As the trail has become more popular, conflict between users has risen, particularly between motorized and non-motorized users.

This study was funded by the Northwest International Trade, Business, and Economic Council; Polk-Burnett Electric Cooperative; County of Burnett; Polk County Tourism Council; University of Wisconsin-Extension Northern District; and the UW-Extension, Cooperative Extension, Community, Natural Resource, and Economic Development Program.


  • The trail had approximately 46,460 individual trail users between October, 2006 and September, 2007, with over one-third of the use happening in June and July. Snow levels were particularly low during the study year, so snowmobiling use was likely lower than normal. It is unclear what proportion of these are locals or visitors.
  • Despite increased trail use, most trail users did not perceive crowding as a problem. This difference between trail managers’ and users’ perceptions highlights the importance of gathering data from trail users and not relying on anecdotes.
  • Motivations for using the trails differed substantially between motorized and non-motorized users. Walkers’ and cyclists’ strongest motivations for using the trail were for its quiet, rural atmosphere and privacy and solitude. Snowmobilers’ strongest motivation was the presence of sufficient snow.
  • Walkers and cyclists tended also to be cross-country skiers. Motorized users were more likely also to be hunters, and snowmobilers were likely to also be ATV users and vice versa.
  • Trail users spent an average of $118 per visit.
  • Respondents were strongly in favor of local budget windfalls going to maintaining the Gandy Dancer Trail, allocating more to the trail than to any other local services. However, if faced with a budget shortfall, respondents were also willing to reduce the trail maintenance budget after increasing taxes or decreasing social service spending to make up the difference. However, these results should be interpreted carefully because many trail users are not local residents who would be unaffected by local budget decisions.
  • The trail’s economic impact may be limited because it is not well connected to nearby towns, lacking sidewalks or designated bike lanes, and towns do not have the breadth of businesses visitors would use, such as bike or snowmobile shops and take-out restaurants.


The authors gathered data by intercepting trail users over the course of a year, when they conducted a brief initial survey, and following up with a mail survey. They also gathered qualitative data via focus groups with local residents to verify survey findings. The researchers stratified their sample by month, weekend versus weekday, and time of day.


Kazmierski, B., M. Kornmann, D. Marcouiller, and J. Prey. 2009. Trails and their gateway communities: A case study of recreational use compatibility and economic impacts. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Division of Cooperative Extension Publication #G3880.