For those of you who had been wondering what would be required to turn Michigan into the “Trail State,” look no further than the 150+ page draft of the Michigan Comprehensive Trail Plan which has been released for comment. Governor Snyder’s stated goal of making Michigan the “Trail State” was once again referenced in his November 28, 2012 message on Energy and the Environment (link to: NMCN post). Within his message he stated:
“We can and will seek to make Michigan the Trail State.” … As the Trail State, we will need a showcase trail that celebrates these efforts and pulls together private and public trails into a signature Pure Michigan experience. With the addition of approximately 200 miles of additional trails in the Lower Peninsula and the UP, we could hike or bike from Belle Isle to the Wisconsin border. Today, I am directing DNR to focus on connecting those trails, through cooperation with private and non-profit partners and the use of their own resources.”
Although we have written about the need and opportunity to address the emerging recreational user conflicts within our public lands (Finding Common Ground on our Common Grounds-11/1/12), it is our view that a plan of this type should begin with a commitment to honor existing management plans and user priorities which have been developed over years of public input, engagement and oversight.
We should hasten to point out that the Trail Plan is a DRAFT document – which is a very good thing. Besides the need for some overall editing, the document includes some general recommendations which appear to be at odds with itself. Chief among those is the recommendation to open game areas to equestrian use, while elsewhere in the document discussing the restrictions associated with Pittman-Robertson and Fish and Game Fund-acquired lands. Although we remain confident that this recommendation will ultimately be removed or amended, for those who share our concerns we would encourage you to formally submit those comments in the manner described at the end of this column.
One central hypothesis that seems to drive this entire “Trail State” initiative is the fundamental assumption that if you build it, they will come. This strategy is somewhat surprising for a Governor and administration which prides itself on being data-driven, when there appears to be an absence of supporting research.
To its credit, the draft document does include significant discussion relative to current and new funding sources for the maintenance and operation of an enhanced and expanded trails system. Having said that, it would seem prudent to match projected costs with anticipated benefits prior to committing an undefined level of resources for development, maintenance and management of what is already one of the nation’s largest trail systems. This is especially true for a State agency (DNR) which has limited prospects for new funding while at the same time being saddled with new budgetary obligations.
It is worth noting that most of this fiscal burden will reside with the Parks Division which is now charged with the management of the trails programs. In spite of the relative financial health of the current Parks and Recreation Fund accounts, one cannot help but wonder how much “spill over” would occur to other Divisions such as Law Enforcement if a doubling of use were to occur on our State Forest roads as a result of an expanded trail system.
A quick read of the bi-weekly Conservation Officer reports makes it clear that a significant portion the DNR law enforcement effort is dedicated to trail riding law enforcement. Conservation Officer resources being spent on the enforcement of trail and land use rules is time that can no longer be spent protecting fish and game. In spite of the rationale provided in the report which recommends opening all lower peninsula State Forest roads to ORV use, this collective road/trail use expansion will no doubt place additional burdens on the Law Enforcement Division; this too, should be funded.
In spite of what may appear to be critical comments, it remains our opinion that the draft lays out a worthy vision and an exciting opportunity to find new users, supporters and defenders of our public lands. This also represents a significant opportunity to engage those local units of government who have historically struggled to see the social and economic benefits of the state’s public lands and natural resources.
Lastly, the implementation phase of the plan needs to be balanced and not forsake our resource values cultivated over the past century in the name of short-term economic gain. If handled in such a manner, much of the user-based conflict which has emerged in recent years can be avoided while still achieving the objectives of the plan.
While the Trail Plan is not exactly “light” reading, it is important reading. Comments on the draft plan are due by January 25, 2013 and need to be made using a survey response system (click here – if link fails, copy to your web browser: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/7YM69D2). This link is not referenced in either the draft plan or the original electronic press release.