Backpackers? Who Needs Their Tourism Dollars?

IsleRoyale4thIn this latest Trail Talk blog we wonder about Glen Arbor’s opposition to a proposed backpacking trail through Sleeping Bear Dunes and why wouldn’t tourism dollars from trail users be welcomed in a tourist town?

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By Jim DuFresne

In 1964 Joe Mack was elected as the state senate who represented most of the Upper Peninsula and in the 1970s emerged as the nemesis of the blossoming environmental movement in Michigan.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

The Ironwood Democratic hated the thought that on the doorstep of his hometown was the Porcupine Mountains, a wilderness state park full of 300-year-old hemlocks that his logging buddies couldn’t touch. So he once proposed transferring the park from the state’s Department of Natural Resources to the Forestry Department of Michigan Tech University so the trees could be harvested for “research.”

Pretty much what the Japanese say when they harpoon a whale.

When somebody asked Mack about all the backpackers who journey to the Lake Superior wilderness for its undeveloped and pristine nature, he gave the most famous quote of his 30-year political career. Backpackers, Mack retorted, arrive “with a five dollar bill and one pair of underwear and don’t change either one of them.”

Backpackers, who needs them? Apparently not Glen Arbor.

Last September the Glen Arbor Township supervisor sent a memo to the National Park Service saying that the proposed Bay-to-Bay Trail, that would stretch 35 miles along the shoreline of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and be developed primarily for backpackers and overnight kayakers, should be postponed.

“It is our opinion that the full impact of the (paved Sleeping Bear) Heritage Trail has yet to be felt,” wrote John Soderholm on behalf of the Township Board according to the Glen Arbor Enterprise newspaper. “It is our belief that the implementation of an additional trail system at this time is premature.”

Backpackers at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Backpackers at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Some of the board’s concern focused on backpackers leaving the designated trail and trampling through private lakefront property. As if, after hauling a backpack for 8 or 9 miles, you have enough energy for anything but unrolling your Therm-A-Rest pad on the beach.

There was also concern for a new wave of trail traffic that might overburden the downtown area of this small community. You can see it now, a couple of hikers with their 40-pound packs and trekking poles trying to wiggle their way through the hordes of tourists spilling out of the Cherry Republic store. It could get ugly.

But let’s be honest. For the most part the 800 permanent residents of Glen Arbor survive on two things; cottage owners and summer tourists. Cottage owners are wonderful, they’re part-time residents that pay year-round property taxes but don’t overburden township services or local schools with their children.

Summer tourists are even better. Ideally they would book rooms at bed-and-breakfasts or resorts, eat most meals in nearby restaurants and only leave the public beaches to go shopping at places like Cherry Republic.

Who wouldn’t love them?

Backpackers, according to the Joe Mack way of thinking, offer none of this. They carry their accommodations on their back along with most, if not all, their food. They sleep on the ground, their entertainment at night is often watching the sunset instead of sitting in Art’s Tavern and if they only have one pair of underwear … well, it’s because they don’t want to be hauling a 50-pound backpack.

A hiker enjoys the panaromic view from a trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

A hiker enjoys the panaromic view from a trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

But as it’s so often the case trail users in general, and backpackers in particular, get overlooked when it comes to their economic benefits to tourist towns.

A classic example is Fruita, Colorado. In the 1990s the town of 13,000 on the west side of the Rockies was looking to expand its agricultural economy when it began to promote mountain biking in adjacent Colorado National Monument. Today the Bureau of Land Management estimates that trail users pump $1.5 million annually into the local economy and that Fruita’s sales tax revenues have increased by 51% since 2000, including an 80% increase in sales tax revenues from restaurants.

An example closer to home is Traverse City’s Vasa Pathway. At the same time the Glen Arbor Township board was questioning the Bay-to-Bay Trail last fall, the results of the Vasa Economic Impact Study were released.

The yearlong study found that the pathway receives more than 55,000 visits a year from cyclists, skiers, hikers, joggers and birders, many of them from out of town. The result is $2.6 million in direct economic impact to the area economy. The fact that many events utilize the Vasa during the off-season for tourism, including the Iceman Cometh Mountain Bike Race in November and the North American Vasa Ski Race in February, is an added bonus for local businesses.

The tourism industry in Traverse City or Fruita can’t survive only on out-of-town trail users. But you could make an argument they also couldn’t survive without them.

Many at the National Park Service headquarters in Empire believe the Bay-to-Bay Trail will still be built; that too much time, money and planning has gone into the project to shelve it now. But the result of a single letter from the Glen Arbor Township supervisor will be more public hearings, more meetings, more time and money needed to develop alternative routes and amenities.

Most likely those of us who dream of backpacking or kayaking the length of Sleeping Bear Dunes will still be able to someday. We just have to wait even longer, possibly years, for that opportunity.

In the meantime we’ll just have to go somewhere else, like maybe Munising, the departure point for the Lakeshore Trail, and take our tourism dollars with us.

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6 Responses to Backpackers? Who Needs Their Tourism Dollars?

  1. Cheryl Ross says:

    This backpacker may not spend a ton of cash on the trail, but I spend like mad on the way there and back! I guess I’ll skip Sleeping Bear and head back to Nordhouse Dunes.

  2. Reblogged this on The Outdoor Journal and commented:
    Well said.

  3. Ed Morse says:

    I remember when senator Mack made that comment. I have always bought at least gas and a meal in the nearest town when backpack ing.
    Over the years l think backpackers have done more good for the UP than Señ.Mack ever did.

  4. JB says:

    Very disappointing. It’d be nice to have a new lower peninsula hiking trail… If they are worried about people camping out of bounds they could designate a few back country areas, and do passes like Isle Royale. The only thing that drives people “off-site” is people, don’t restrict us like cattle into 2-3 camp sites… If only a $5 economic impact is the concern… I’ve been known to drop $20 on some monster breakfast the morning we crawl our way out of the woods. + $5/night for parking + whatever a pass may cost + last some last minute items i may have forgotten… you’ll get $100 out of me for the weekend.

  5. Rob Burg says:

    Great article! Regarding Porcupine Mountains, one just needs to look at Silver City to see how the park and backpackers benefit this little community. The last time I backpacked the Porkies my buddy and I stayed the last night in Silver City as it was too late to start our drive back to the LP. We not only paid for hotel rooms but splurged on big dinners and beer as our reward. Then drove into Ontonagon the next day to fuel up the car too. Same thing that Munising and Grand Marais see and Copper Harbor as well.
    I know that if I was backpacking in Sleeping Bear Dunes, I would make a stop in Glen Arbor to treat myself to non-trail food and a beer at Art’s or eleswhere. But hey, I guess non-outdoorspeople have no concept how much we contribute to local economies.

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