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.
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.
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.