The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which celebrated its 40th birthday in late October, can almost count the days until work will begin on one of the Park’s biggest achievements — the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. The project is a 27-mile, multi-use trail that promotes access and safety for bikers, hikers, rollerbladers and wheelchairs, alike, though not all locals agreed on whether or not certain portions of the trail should be paved. The Glen Arbor Sun talked with Park Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich about the successful initiative to create the trail, when construction will begin, what excites him most about the trail, how this compares with other Park “creative partnerships”, and how the naysayers can be won over.
Glen Arbor Sun: Tom, the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail (SBHT) appears to be a done deal. Congratulations to you, the National Park, TART Trails, and everyone on the trail’s committee. What was it that gave this project the push it needed to succeed? Who deserves particular credit?
Tom Ulrich: I think what has made the SBHT planning a success is that nearly everyone recognizes what a great thing this trail will be for the community and for visitors to the area. The SBHT will be a hard-surfaced, multi-use trail paralleling M-22 and M-109 for 27 miles through the Lakeshore. It will provide a new, and much-needed, recreational opportunity for us all; that is, a non-motorized trail that can be used to travel between the Lakeshore’s main visitor destinations, Glen Arbor and Empire. The SBHT will give bicyclists — as well as walkers, runners, wheelchair users and baby strollers — a safe, enjoyable and car-free way to explore the Lakeshore and neighboring communities. The Lakeshore has over 100 miles of hiking trails, but exactly zero miles of bicycle trails. The trail will be fun, and will get a lot of people out of their cars and into the outdoors.
The SBHT idea came from the Leelanau Scenic Heritage Route (LSHR) Committee. The State of Michigan designated the LSHR in 2002 to help preserve and enhance the scenic, historical and recreational qualities of Michigan Highways 22, 109 and 204 through the rural countryside and unique villages of Leelanau County. The LSHR Committee deserves a lot of the credit for the idea of establishing the SBHT. The LSHR Committee is chaired by Tom Nixon and is made up of representatives from all 12 townships and villages along the route, Leelanau County, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), the NPS, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, non-governmental organizations such as chambers of commerce, and local citizens. The Northwest Michigan Council of Governments (NWMCG) coordinates the Committee’s activities.
Planning for the SBHT began in 2005 when the LSHR Committee suggested the concept to the NPS. The SBHT received repeated public reviews in the National Lakeshore’s recent General Management Plan process, and was included in the final Plan. In 2009, an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the SBHT was completed, with additional public reviews, that demonstrated that the SBHT will have no significant impact on the environment. Subsequently, TART Trails agreed to partner with the Lakeshore to coordinate fundraising for the trail.
There are so many people and groups who deserve credit for helping the trail come to be. The Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, and their Chairman, Kerry Kelly. The Endorsement Council for the SBHT, and its co-chairs, Bill and Helen Milliken. The SBHT Campaign Cabinet and its tri-chairs, Brad Anderson, Karen VanNoort, and Paul Skinner. Patty O’Donnell of the NWMCG. Gary Niemi of MDOT. Barbara Nelson-Jameson of the National Park Service’s branch that provides assistance to communities — the Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program. All of the board and staff at TART Trails. Finally, there have been so many in the community that have committed support; people like Bob and Stephanie Sutherland, Tom and Holly Reay, Don and Sandy Miller, Todd Stachnik, Matt and Katy Wiessen, Jerry and June Powley, George and Mary Quarderer, Jeff and Georgia Gietzen, Bill and Vicki Anderson, Linda Ihme, and dozens of others.
Sun: Do you have exact, or estimated, dates for when construction will begin on the trail? What are the determining factors there? And how much of the trail might we see completed by next fall?
Ulrich: The earliest that construction could begin is next summer. It is mostly dependent upon MDOT’s workload, as they are responsible for design, engineering and construction; whether in-house or by contract. The first segment to be constructed will run between the Dune Climb and Glen Arbor. Once construction begins, it should move pretty quickly, so it is possible that this segment could be done by next fall.
Sun: What excites you most about this trail, personally? Any certain portions of it? And how might you and your (growing) family utilize it?
Ulrich: I think the most exciting thing about the trail is that it’s not just a fun hike or ride, but that people can actually use it to get around the area. I live up in Centerville Township, so I will be most excited when construction gets up to CR 651, and I can hop on my bike and get on the trail there. One of the ways I am most looking forward to using it with my family, though, is for cross-country skiing! Because the trail will be built 10 feet wide to bicycle trail standards, we will be able to groom it for classic and skate skiing; another thing we don’t currently have in the Lakeshore.
Sun: The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has fostered quite a few successful “creative partnerships” with non-Park groups over the years? Does this one stand out? And going forward, how can the private-sector community build off its proximity to, and relationship with, the local National Lakeshore?
Ulrich: The Lakeshore enjoys many formal and informal partnerships that help us serve the community, and the nation, by achieving our mission of preserving this amazing place for people to enjoy. We have three longstanding “friends” groups, who exist to help achieve that mission; the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear, and Manitou Islands Memorial Society. In addition, we partner with local, state and federal governments, and other non-profits such as SEEDS youth corps. The SBHT partnership stands out in that it is focused on one single very large project, rather than many smaller projects, like these other groups accomplish.
Clearly, private-public partnerships are essential to achieving our mission in an era of variable public funding. Fortunately, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has a lot of people who are very passionate about it, and willing to commit their time and resources to help us plan, fund, and carry out projects in the park. I think that the local communities have great ideas about how to partner with the park for mutual benefit, and the SBHT is a great example. Sometimes the park approaches others with ideas, and I can tell you that people aren’t shy about letting us know their ideas as well. Our standing as one of America’s national parks does impose some sideboards as to what we can undertake, but they are far outweighed by what we can bring to the area in our operation and partnership capability.
Sun: Obviously, some local residents weren’t as passionate about the Heritage Trail, or about seeing it paved in certain sections. Do you think that hearts and minds will change over time? Might this trail ultimately make amends?
Ulrich: Nearly everyone I have talked to likes the idea of the SBHT. As is usually the case, however, everyone has their own take on the very best way to go about it. People are especially concerned with the segments of the trail that will affect them personally. For example, the stretch that will parallel M-109 along the base of Alligator Hill will go over an existing, informal trail that many of our neighbors in Glen Arbor enjoy, but not too many others know about. I completely understand why they would not want to see the trail they love changed and “discovered” by the SBHT. There are local equestrians who would have preferred a soft surface on the trail, so that it might be used by horses. Still others like everything about the trail, including the bicycle and wheelchair accessibility it will provide, but are simply uncertain about the aesthetics of the paved surface that will enable that accessibility. These are all concerns that the Lakeshore shares. We take our responsibilities seriously and we considered this trail very carefully, and very publicly, every step of the way — environmental impact, route, design, surface, width, uses, funding, maintenance, and even whether to consider it at all!
I believe that people will love this trail, and it will be seen as one of the best things that ever happened in this area. The SBHT is a “legacy” project; the kind that its supporters will be able to proudly look back upon and say, “I helped make that happen”, as their grandchildren ride their bikes safely between the Dune Climb and Glen Arbor. I’d like to think even those who are unhappy about one aspect or another of the trail at present will come around and be glad it was built. Perhaps not all of them, but anyone who might enjoy a pleasant bike ride through the woods and then into town for a beverage and a snack, with no cars whizzing by.
Sun: If the stars were to align, what other cool and forward-thinking projects could you imagine the National Lakeshore undertaking with outside groups in the years ahead — be they as big, or bigger, than the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail project?
Ulrich: Oh, there are so many possibilities! We might figure out partnerships to help use and preserve some of our historic structures, like the Sleeping Bear Inn, or perhaps even the South Manitou Lighthouse. We would love to find ways to broaden our environmental education opportunities, and get more students spending quality time in the park, helping us study and manage our natural and historic resources. I am intrigued by programs where parks partner with health care providers who write prescriptions for outdoor recreation in the parks — there’s a natural use for the SBHT!