When a Trail Closes We All Lose

Hiking-Trail-Closed-SignA couple of snowmobile trails were closed this winter due to misbehavior by snowmobilers using them. What do you care, you’ve never been on a snowmobile in your life. But you should as it’s another reminder that our wonderful trail systems in Michigan are often fragile networks.

To find a ski trail for a late winter escape go to MichiganTrailMaps.com or its special Nordic coverage of great groomed tracks.

By Jim DuFresne

It could have been a single snowmobiler or it could have been a caravan of a dozen or more. It could have been a single incident or something that happens repeatedly throughout the winter. We’ll probably never know.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

What we do know is that Trail No. 4 is closed for the rest of the winter and who knows when it will reopen. In one of the most popular snowmobiling region of the Lower Peninsula, Trail No. 4 was a vital link between East Jordan to Charlevoix but in early January, it was quickly shut down with no public debate or advance notice.

Trail No. 4 was a mix of seasonal county roads, road rights-of-ways and trails across private land. When somebody or some group of snowmobilers left the designated route and ran at will through woods and fields or maybe did a little hill climbing, property owners pulled the plug on their segment which in turn closed down a nearly 20-mile trail. Or as the Michigan DNR so delicately put it: “Permissions were rescinded this year by the land owners, who felt the snowmobiling public did not respect land owners’ wishes regarding land access and use.”

Snowmobilers following a trail in Benzie County.

Snowmobilers following a trail through the woods in Benzie County.

With more than 6,200 miles Michigan has one of the most extensive systems of interconnected snowmobile trails in country. But let’s not kid ourselves; it’s an extremely fragile network built on handshakes because half of it is located on private land. Leave the posted trail and race through an orchard today because the freshly fallen, unmarred snow is too inviting not to and tomorrow that trail might be closed.

This has been a longtime problem with snowmobilers because of the tradition of bar-hopping and drinking while riding. The problem has been improved over the years thanks to stiffer laws that hit snowmobilers with a DUI charge when they are caught drunk and an educational push by the Michigan Snowmobile Association to separate the two activities. Still Trail No. 4 wasn’t the only one closed this winter. Trail No. 768 that connects Mancelona to the Starvation Lake area in Antrim County was also shut down for similar reasons.

Nor are the challenges to build and maintain a network of trails unique to snowmobilers. As much as we’d like to think a trail is permanent, it often isn’t.

The most popular preserve that the Leelanau Conservancy maintains is Whaleback Natural Area, a 40-acre tract located just south of Leland. Whaleback is a 300-foot bluff that rises above Lake Michigan and offers spectacular views of the Manitou Passage, especially at sunset. But from the trailhead the access trail passes through private property for a third of a mile before officially entering the preserve.

Entering Whaleback Natural Area.

Entering Whaleback Natural Area.

Access is allowed through the kindness of the surrounding property owners.  And so far trail users have done what trail signs ask them to; Stay On The Trail! But the situation is hardly permanent and Whaleback might be only a couple of bad incidents away from becoming an isolated preserve that nobody can reach.

Sometimes it’s not a trail that closes. In the late 1980s, I skied or hiked Merriman East Pathway every time I was in Iron Mountain. The 9-mile state forest pathway was a beautiful mix of heavily forested terrain embedded with large rock outcroppings. Then the timber rights were sold to a logging company and what replaced much of the forests was clearcuts. I was sickened when I returned unknowingly the first time and later was told “the trees will grow back.”

Sure, but not in my lifetime. The trail is still there, it was everything else that changed.

Sometimes trail conflict is the fault of misbehavior on the part of trail users. Whether it’s a snowmobiler blasting through a farm field or hikers littering the woods with water bottles and Powerbar wrappers.

And sometimes it’s not.

Michigan’s newest path is already one of our most popular trails; the Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail. The 27-mile trail that extends from Empire to Glen Arbor and beyond is a massive $12 million project that has been opening in segments since 2012. But the National Park Service and trail organizers have run into a road block for a 5.2-mile stretch that would wind past Little Traverse Lake east of Glen Arbor.

Even though the trail would be on national lakeshore land north of the lake, residents with seasonal cottages and homes along the lakeshore have opposed it. Vehemently.  They are fighting any trail passing through their area, whether it’s on public land or not. It’s the classic not-in-my-backyard stance because they don’t want to share their slice of northern Michigan with cyclists, hikers or skiers in the winter. Or probably anybody else.

The issue has landed in court because these are not little log cabins along the lake, rather half-million dollar cottages, whose owners have the money, political connections or whatever to force lawyers for the National Park Service and Department of Interior to begin the long process of gathering documents and preparing for the lawsuit. Who knows when that segment of the Heritage Trail will ever get built?

Trails are not a right because you pay taxes, not like clean water, public safety or functional schools. Trails are something you nurture, build and then fight like hell to protect.

That means the future of trails falls squarely on those of us who use them. Trail users need to know that you have to behave responsibly when using trails. That you have to support the groups responsible for building them; whether it’s TART, Inc., North Country Trail Association, Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance or whoever,  by becoming a member or sending them an end-of-the-year donation or joining their volunteer work parties.

And even then you should still be ready to give again when you use a trail in the form of a park pass or a donation at the trailhead.

Trails are not free even when you don’t have to pay. But the alternative could be that the trail you love today is gone tomorrow.

What’s that trail worth then?

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