Will Michigan see a non-motorized trail user fee program in the future?

ESCANABA — People in conservation used to be able to stay updated through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) via their website under a tab labeled “Laws and Legislation.” When opened, a viewer could follow a chronological list of legislation in process and find the official position taken regarding each bill and whether or not the resulting vote would impact the department or some other extension of state government. That program was taken away about eight years ago at the request of some legislators who felt the ability of the MDNR to project their perception of the pros and cons on issues put them at a disadvantage with the public.

Individual members and affiliate clubs of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) can and do receive periodic updates on legislative activity. These, at times, are more intense as MUCC is directly involved with the process and frequently provides testimony before committee in representing the documented policies of MUCC.

There are other means of following the flow of information. One in particular is that provided to the Michigan Trails Advisory Council (MTAC), a group of multi-interest trail users who work in a hub and spoke committee system representing all users throughout Michigan. They meet three times a year and their respective sub-committees meet quarterly. MTAC also receives laws and legislation updates, in this case through the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance and its Executive Director Bob Wilson.

Bob Wilson carries over 30 years experience in natural resources policy, environmental law and environmental policy and has a record of leadership in Michigan trails development. His previous employment was that of a Senior Policy Advisor for the Michigan Senate Majority Policy Office and Senate Republican Caucus. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Environmental Law at both Michigan State University and Western Michigan University and taught American Government. The guy has been in the trenches of law creation for quite some time.

One of the ongoing discussions of MTAC and the sub-committees is fee structure and funding sources via grant programs. Those of us that hunt, fish, motorize ride (i.e. ATV/ORV, snowmobile and/or boat) realize what fee structure means. We pay to play. The annual licenses and stickers in my possession usually carry a final price tag over $150. We also contribute money through donation and in-kind as conservationists and trail sponsor volunteers. On the other hand, those who hike, bike and paddle do contribute to their respective discipline voluntarily but are not obliged to pay an annual fee for the publicly owned system they use. In the case of ATV/ORV multi-use trails and routes, the network is opened for the non-motorized to use but the cost burden is paid by those obligated to buy a license. No big deal.

As the non-motorized trail interest activity has grown, so too is the need to cover the costs of expansion. The public grant system has been the staple source of funding but down the road there needs to be consideration of paying to maintain and upgrade what has been created. Years ago the people of Michigan voted to amend our Constitution to protect specific funds earmarked for use from being raided for other purposes. With dwindling budgets the host providers of grants are seeing more competition among applicants and the base funds that many take for granted will most likely also shrink in the next decade.

There are those like me, who work with the non-motorized side of trails users, that continue to suggest these folks develop their own fee structure to assure continuation of their sports. The closest group currently in place are the cooperative associations related to equestrian riding. They sponsor trail development and take on the needs of maintenance schedule much like that of the motorized users. While not as solidly organized, the hikers and bikers are giving too but I fear are a little short sighted as to future direction. They’re still building a network that was initially spurred into being when Governor Rick Snyder first took office. His motivation was from discovering the vast outdoors potential Michigan has to off and the fact the not too many people seemed to know about it. The topic of implementing a fee structure has had a sense of aura similar to that of stepping on a trip pad of a bear trap – it won’t be good.

One of the methods of introducing a potentially controversial concept is to use a previously established model. Bob Wilson found such an example and presented it to MTAC as a possible solution for Michigan’s Legislature to use in resolving the issue.

Wyoming state lawmakers are considering a first-of-its-kind fundraising measure: Charge hikers, bikers, horseback riders, and other non-motorized entities for using trails. A mandatory $10 annual permit fee paid by users of non-motorized, “natural surface” trails would support public land trails systems across Wyoming. The concept has already received endorsement by one prominent outdoor recreation user group.

Wyoming is already experiencing the funding drought. Today, “there’s no funding for non-motorized trails,” Dominic Bravo, the administrator of the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Office, said in an interview. There are those trail users that have mixed feelings about a fee, however. There has been a mindset among some that they shouldn’t have to pay anything, but others are soon to recognize there are costs involved and a lack of funds to pay for them.

It is possible that the near future Michigan will see some solid advancement on the topic. The new opportunity will be easier to present because it is under consideration elsewhere and the reality of keeping what we now have open in outdoors recreation is being mapped out better than the trails themselves.

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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

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