Column: Trail damage in Keweenaw exceeds $60M

ESCANABA — The Michigan Trails Advisory Council (MTAC) met in regular session last Monday in Roscommon. Parts of the agenda included updates on the Pure Michigan Trails and Pure Michigan Trail Towns efforts. Most of the promotion has been related to the non-motorized trails sports that include biking, hiking equestrian riding and waterways, a process initiated through Governor Snyder’s intent to make Michigan the “go-to” state for trails and to connect the state from Ironwood to Belle Isle.

The two locations were merged in name to for the two phased Iron Belle Trail. The 1,273-mile hiking route (69 % complete) incorporates a large portion of the existing North Country National Scenic Trail. It traverses the west side of the Lower Peninsula and borders Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula. The 791-mile bicycle route (64 % complete) utilizes existing multi-use trails and follows US-2, a designated national bicycling route in the Upper Peninsula.

In addition, the Water Trails Program is starting to emerge in concert with the growing interest of canoeing and kayaking. Where they will occur will be based more on being in close proximity to local municipalities and using segments of navigable rivers and streams for challenge. Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) State Trails Coordinator Paul Yauk indicated that water trails will soon to make its mark on the overall program. Kristen Thrall from the US Forest Service (USFS) works in the Huron-Manistee National Forest. While attending the MTAC meeting, she indicated one of the considerations that all interested parties need to consider is whether or not a particular stream/river segment is listed under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. If so, there are more considerations of allowable use beyond the normal environmental issues encountered. Moreover, if the water trail is within the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), there too, special requirements may be in effect before plans of designation are pursued.

On the motorized side of trail riding, MTAC was advised that a process will now be implemented that will allow extended snowmobile trail grooming to take place depending on late winter snowfall and concurrence with MDNR personnel. Previously, all grooming stopped within a set schedule but late winters have helped local economies where the snowmobile season ran longer. Trail sponsor groups that perform the grooming tasks will be updated as to how the extension process will take place.

The MDNR has also been seeking to expand easements with private land owners to expand from being seasonal to permanent, and in some cases open year around. Once done, this type of land access will reduce the need to update and renew individual contracts. Ron Yesney, Trails Coordinator from the MDNR in Marquette advised the members of MTAC that the process will enable long term planning and reduce the workload of staff. Yesney also indicated that the MDNR relies on the local trail sponsors for a lot of the networking and contacts with land owners to secure agreements.

The motorized trail sports took a significant hit when flooding occurred this spring in not just one episode but two consecutive heavy rain storms that deluged miles of established designated trails and routes in and about the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Jackie Blodgett, assistant chief of the MDNR Parks and Recreation Division (PRD), issued a Western UP update of all damages. While the written report defined complications in detail, Yesney described some of the devastation as not just a 100 year type flood, with rainfall totals exceeding 7 inches in some places, the odds of seeing, “This type of damage could better be described as something only seen in 500 year spans.” MDNR personnel should be commended for their efforts in coordinating damage estimates and repairs, some working voluntarily on their own time to get things done.

Some of the designated trails and routes that were closed as a result of storm and flooding damage and are now or will be reopened include the Bill Nicholls (top be opened by snowmobile season) and the Hancock to Calumet (Jack Stevens #17) is now reopened with reroutes. The Portage Lift Bridge to Dollar Bay system is being worked on and should be opened soon. The Calumet to Normand Road segment is open but there will still have to be a couple of culverts replaced and the Dollar Bay (1st Street) to Normand Road is heavily damaged and will not be repaired by this snowmobile season. Trails and routes like the Freda Grade and Chassell to Houghton segments will also remain officially closed.

The MDNR and other agencies involved in the recovery of these lands are now waiting for a disaster declaration before federal monies can be allocated. While the total sum for just the damage to the trails is not yet complete, it is anticipated costs are already over $60 million and rising. Part of the process in determining need may rely on economic impact as some businesses have reported significant losses for the season so far and others have been forced to close.

The motorized trails riding sports that include ATV/ORV and snowmobiling have not received the attention recently given to the non-motorized for growth potential. One could consider the economic impact importance and success of the program is being overlooked and taken for granted. These are real dollars being lost from enthusiasts who spend a lot of money to enjoy their recreation.

Governor Snyder is scheduled to view the damage in the Keweenaw Peninsula this week. The last time a catastrophic incident like this took place was due to forest fires in Luce and Chippewa Counties. It is hoped he will agree the significance of flood damages will equal the impact seen in the fires where he called for and was able to secure a special emergency supplemental appropriation through the Michigan Legislature.

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Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.

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