A summit sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) was held earlier this month in Sarasota, FL with a goal of improving relations between businesses and industries involved in outdoor recreation. Unfortunately, many in the outdoor industry had traditionally assumed that they were fighting over the same potential customers and that their success was dependent upon someone else’s failure. This erroneousness of this assumption was only recently discovered when the results of several studies revealed that outdoor recreational spending in this county reached $646 billion in 2011 and has grown at 5 percent annually since 2005, all of which is being driven by its estimated 111 million participants.
Reading about this discussion brought to mind many of the issues being debated here in Michigan regarding use and management of our public lands. Although Michigan has historically been among the leaders in providing diverse recreational opportunities, it has always been forced to play “catch up” with changing demographics and emerging outdoor activities.
Those who grew up here in the 1950’s and 60’s remember a time when hunting and fishing meant a rather narrow range of pursuits. It was only through the emergence of Fred Bear that deer hunting began to include archery, which has now been even further segmented between a myriad of techniques and equipment types. The same evolution of technology, equipment and parceling of angler preferences has also occurred on the fisheries side of the equation.
Fast forward to the 21st century and we now find ourselves in a time when our trail systems must now accommodate hikers, mountain bikers, ATVs, horses, snowmobiles and geocachers. Each one of these user types now has one or more constituent group lobbying on its behalf and in some instances, it is to the exclusion of others.
The best example of the dissonance which has occurred in recent years is the conflict which has emerged in the Pigeon River Country (PRC) and equestrian users. Although we in no way want to oversimplify the history and many complex reasons behind this issue, the potential rewards for finding a solution cannot be overstated. There is a reason that this special place has become host to such a dispute and that is its unique and unspoiled character. If this issue were to be resolved on a long-term basis, the defenders of the Pigeon River Concept of Management would likely find no bigger advocates for its defense than from many of these horseback users. At a time when many now question the need and role of such special-management areas, creating an alliance of this type to help with its preservation and enhancement would seem to be stunningly obvious.
Collectively, we need to move away from viewing such places as our own personal playgrounds and trying to craft ways for the general public to recognize its benefits. The moment that someone in southeast Michigan does not see even an indirect benefit for having four million acres of State of Michigan owned/managed land then we will begin to see its incremental loss.
Through its comprehensive state recreational planning process, we should be urging the continuation of past principles of user diversity to the extent feasible. We should be providing not only a wide range of trail-use opportunities, but reinforcing the need for a variety of hunter access alternatives as well; these include both walk-in/primitive type hunting options as well as motorized access. Most would agree that such a management vision is a far better alternative to what may otherwise become a recreational mono-culture.
Building alliances of this type will not be easy, and in many cases runs counter to the very reasons that most of these groups organized in the first place. The reality is that this is a time when our resource managers are being asked to find ways to maximize the economic benefits of our public lands and natural resources. For those of us who would prefer to see the emphasis on economic development come from activities performed on the surface of the ground and not from those below it, making the necessary compromises to achieve such goals would seem to be a small price to pay.
We will be much stronger as a collective voice in support of our public lands and water if we pursue a path which makes room for those who see the trail through eyes which may be different from our own.