A Tree in the Middle of the Trail: The Need to Support MI State Forests

A day after the Great Lakes Cyclone, when winds were hitting 60 mph and stronger, I was in the Pigeon River Country State Forest following the 10-Mile Loop of the Shingle Mill Pathway for http://www.MichiganTrailMaps.com. It was still windy, but otherwise the afternoon was cool, clear and crisp, the perfect day to be out in the woods hiking a trail.

The Shingle Mill winds past some of the best scenery that Northern Michigan has to offer, but what occupying my thoughts wasn’t views of steep-sided sinkhole lakes or the Pigeon River, but all the logs and trees that the high winds had blown across the pathway.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

Who was going to remove them?

In mid-October the Forest Management Division of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment announced that due to another cut in general funds all maintenance work would be suspended on the 60 non-motorized pathways in Michigan’s seven state forests.

That includes plowing parking areas in the middle of the winter and grooming pathways for skiers. Or pumping out vault toilets at the trailheads. Or repairing bridges and signage along the trails. Or even painting an occasional blue blaze on trees.

Or removing a tree that has fallen across the trail and stops everybody dead in their tracks.

The only exception, said DNRE officials, are state forest trails where the state has signed contractual agreements to groom them or pathways that have spawned volunteer groups to oversee their maintenance.

“We’re going to have to go in a different direction,” Lynn Boyd, chief of the DNRE Forest Management Division, told the Grand Rapids Press. “We had another cut in general fund. They took $300,000 out of the forest recreation budget. That money went to ski trails and non-motorized trails with no funding source, plus campgrounds.”

The decision affects not only cross-country skiers this winter but hikers and backpackers, mountain bikers and equestrians. Everybody can expect pathways in rougher condition next year with a cloudy future beyond that. This affects some of Michigan’s most popular trails; Jordan River Pathway, Sand Lakes Quiet Area, Mason Tract Pathway and the Sinkholes Pathway.

Some hope that Michigan’s new Recreation Passport program will provide funds to the state forests as well as the state park system. Passports went on sale Oct. 1 and are designed to replace motor vehicle entry stickers at state parks and boat launches.

Some funds will eventually trickle down to the forest recreation program, but not be until 2012 at the earliest and nobody, not even the people who created the program, know how much it will generate for state forest pathways.

Meanwhile trees keep falling on the trails.

A fallen tree on the Warner Creek Pathway.

It’s seems to me that the funding model we have for state forests recreation is badly outdated and no longer meets our needs. The only thing we pay for are campgrounds and despite fees being raised to $15 a night, the DNRE still  had to close 12 more state forest campgrounds last year that may never be re-opened.

Some have advocated turning a portion of the campgrounds and pathways to local units of government but they don’t seem much more endowed with recreation funds than the state. Others urge donation canisters at every trailhead. Maybe some will give, maybe some won’t.

It’s seems to me if we, the mountain bikers, hikers, skiers, the morel mushroom hunters, the birders, want state forest pathways, we all need to pay for it. What we need is an annual state forest permit, priced at $10 or $15 a year and required anytime you enter a state forest.

The suggestion of such a permit will have many screaming “tax increase” but I’ve never equated user fees as taxes. If you want to see a movie, you have to purchase a ticket. If you go out to dinner, you pick up the tab at the end of the meal. You drive across the Bluewater Bridge to Canada, there’s a toll booth waiting for you at the other end.

If you want a pathway that’s been cleared, marked and equipped with toilets and drinking water at the trailhead, there’s a price to pay. If you don’t want to pay the price of admission, you can’t see the movie. That’s not a tax, that’s a ticket.

I don’t have a problem paying for outdoor recreation. This year alone I spent $104 for annual passes to Sleeping Dunes National Lakeshore, Huron-Manistee National Forest, Michigan State Parks and Oakland County parks. Funding the places where I hike, ski and camp is far less expensive than what it costs me to visit them in terms of gas, lodging and equipment.

And if a national forest is worth $30 a year to me or the Sleeping Bear Dunes $20, then surely 5 million acres of state forest land, blessed with more than 700 miles of trails and 133 campgrounds and preserving trout streams and lakes, is worth $10. Or more.

Sadly, in this era of no-new taxes this would be a hard concept to push through Lansing.  But the alternative to doing nothing is a dwindling number of state forest campgrounds and trailhead facilties … and a growing number of trees laying across the pathways.

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4 Responses to A Tree in the Middle of the Trail: The Need to Support MI State Forests

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention A Tree in the Middle of the Trail » Trail Talk -- Topsy.com

  2. Rob says:

    Good posting. Sadly we need to rely on vounteers more and more. Its not that volunteers aren’t willing (I know several people who do a ton of work on the North Country Trail), but because of our jobs many of us don’t always have the time to spend on doing volunteer trailwork. My job is technically 40 hours a week, but realistically I am working nearly 60 hours a week, especially during the prime hiking season of spring, summer and fall. And I kow I am not alone.

    I hike alone a lot and do my share of trail clearing when I can, but its hard for one person, without a saw, to clear a large tree off of a trail.

    I don’t have a solution, I just know that in tough times, our hobby/avocation is one that is getting the crunch.

  3. Jerry Vis says:

    Hi Jim,

    Like your website, I think I will be visiting it often.

    However, I disagree with your proposal for a new sticker to fund the State Forests and trails here in Michigan. Just last spring, I was having a conversation with one of the fine COs we have in Michigan about the need for just one sticker for access to all the state’s recreational oppertunities. I was in the Bass River Recreation area, and didn’t know if the State Park sticker I had was good for recreation areas, he told me it was, which was a good thing.

    It would be extremely hard to enforce any type of pass for the state forests, since they are so large and have so many access roads in and out. I think a much better way to increase funding for the DNR would be to require the new Recreational Passport for any one camping in a State Forest, whether they are in a developed campground, or camping for free out in the boonies. Then reduce the cost per night in the developed campgrounds to $10 per night so that a 20 dollar bill would cover a typical weekend for most people. It would reduce confusion, and add more money to the DNR coffers which is so badly needed. I think by lowering the price per night, more people would use the campgrounds, and requiring the Recreational Passport is much better than a new seperate sticker.

    Another thing that should be done is to look at some of the work rules that have been set into law recently. I don’t know if you are aware of it, but the unit manager for the Pigeon RIver Country must spend 20% of his working time on vehicle use issues, document that he is spending that much time on them, and turn it in to his superiors. That’s one full day per week. Scott has said that this is hampering his efforts in dealing with other issues. That was not an internal rule with in the DNR, but imposed by the legislature in a funding bill, and I don’t know if it applies to all unit mannagers, or just the PRC. We need to free up the unit managers so they can deal with issues at hand, not have to do make work projects to meet a requirement.

    Jerry Vis

    • Jim DuFresne says:

      Jerry, excellent points. I wouldn’t have a problem with extending the passport requirement to state forest campgrounds. My main concern is generating a more stable flow of revenue for state forest facilities, whether they are campgrounds, trails or boat landings. I also think its important for people to accept the reality that if they use public facilities and public land they have to pay for it. Or lose it. The old notion that we shouldn’t have user fees because “I already pay taxes” no longer holds water. Parks and public land are always the first to be axed from general funds when governments are experiencing budget shortages.
      As long as I’m on the topic, I also believe senior citizen discounts should be carefully reviewed. Seniors are much more active than they were 25 or 30 years ago when many of the discounts were put in place. If they are camping or hiking a trail or visiting a state park I believe they should shoulder a greater share of the fees paid if not the same as every other age group. If we offer deep discounts on entry fees and camping fees it should be based on income (I’m not sure how you would even do a hardship discount) not age. I say all this knowing I’m not that farte away from a senior discount myself.

      Jim DuFresne

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