Does Leelanau Conservancy’s Palmer Woods mountain biking represent development or environmental stewardship?


Photo of Chad Jordan biking in Palmer Woods by Sheen Watkins

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

An important question hovers over the Leelanau Conservancy’s push to build a 10-car parking lot east of Wheeler Road, which mountain bikers will use starting next year to access the expanding Palmer Woods trail network. Neighbors opposed the initiative, but the Cleveland Township Board sided with the Conservancy and greenlit the project on Nov. 14.

Do mountain bike trails and infrastructure in preserved natural areas reflect development (most mountain bikers drive fossil fuel-burning cars to access trails)? Or does the sport increase environmental awareness? In other words, does mountain biking compromise or help the environment?

“We believe that getting people onto the land builds a sense of place and love for the land, which then encourages them to become stewards and conservationists of tomorrow—whether their point of access is mountain biking, hiking or birding.” said the Conservancy’s communications director Claire Wood.

“We’ve seen Palmer Woods attract people who are different than our traditional supporters. It has helped us engage with younger people and families with kids.”

Palmer Woods’ first mountain bike trail opened to great fanfare in November 2018. The destination has since expanded to 17 miles of rigorous, hilly trails that attract thrill seekers from throughout northern Michigan. Palmer Woods’ initial parking lot off Wheeler Road, a mile east of Big Glen Lake in Glen Arbor Township, has expanded to accommodate 60 cars and includes restrooms and bicycle repair stands.

The Palmer Woods Forest Reserve, the Leelanau Conservancy’s largest natural area at 1,075 acres also offers hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails maintained by the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes through rolling hills and northern hardwood forest. The reserve stretches more than two miles, north to south, and shares a nearly five-mile boundary with Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

This year the Conservancy is adding another 8.5 miles of hiking, skiing and mountain bike trails in the reserve’s northern section and clearing a remote, 10-car dirt parking lot near Wheeler and School Lake Roads. The intent is to offer another point of entry for bikers, hikers and skiers arriving from the north and to dissuade them from traveling the length of the dirt-surfaced Wheeler Rd to access the original, larger parking lot. Those new trails will open for skiing this winter and mountain biking next spring.

“We’ve heard from Norte (youth biking) coaches who teach mountain biking out there that with kids it can take more than two hours if they start from the existing parking lot,” said Wood. “This offers them the opportunity to do shorter rides for people of all abilities.

“We believe the outdoors are for everyone. Whether it’s for biking, hiking or birdwatching, access to the outdoors is essential for a healthy community,” said Wood, adding that Leelanau County was recently ranked as the healthiest county in Michigan.

But some Cleveland Township neighbors near Wheeler and School Lake Roads opposed the Conservancy’s new parking lot to access Palmer Woods. They expressed concerns about increased, and fast-moving traffic this year, and they believe township planning officials ignored their voices.

“This spring and summer Wheeler Road was a dustbowl, it was horrible,” said Bob DeKorne. “The classic scene we saw was a large SUV with expensive bikes on top or on the back driving 60 miles per hour down the dirt road. We haven’t seen that kind of traffic on Wheeler Road in the 25 years that I have lived here.”

DeKorne, whose property neighbors the Palmer Woods tract where the parking lot is being cleared, heard bulldozers operating early this year and asked the Cleveland Township Planning Commission whether local zoning allowed the Conservancy to develop the lot. He rallied neighbors in opposition, and 21 residents signed a letter that was delivered to the Township on June 1 calling on their elected officials to establish controls or “guardrails” for how the property would be used.

“When I heard the Conservancy had purchased more than 200 acres next to me, I was psyched,” DeKorne said. “I assumed they would do something like Houdek Dunes or DeYoung Natural Area, where there’s a walking trail and people can enjoy the woods. The mountain bike trails (next to me) are not the kind of trails that a retired guy on a 10-speed could ride. It’s very clearly a bike park for hardcore riders.”

As DeKorne sees it, officials “dragged their feet.” On Nov. 1 the Planning Commission recommended approving the parking lot, and on Nov. 14 the Township Board voted 4-0, with one abstention, to greenlight the Conservancy’s project.

“The noise, the odor, and dust pollution has increased since the Leelanau Conservancy has created a ‘mountain bike trail’,” said Wheeler Road resident Mary Eliowitz during public comment. “They bulldozed many trees and foliage to create this trail and parking lot. Many animals have perished in the dead zone, increased road kill. Wondering why is another lot necessary when the one in place is already so destructive?”

Board member Todd Nowak conceded that, based on input at a public hearing, “the public is not excited about the secondary access point to the trail,” with all but two speakers opposed. Township supervisor Tim Stein added, “this is an allowable use in the agricultural district, it meets the requirements of the zoning rules, the Conservancy and Planning Commission have agreed upon the language for a definition of a “park.”

Following the vote, resident Joe VanderMeulen opined that he believed the Planning Commission had made an error on the site plan approval. He believed the Township’s master plan states that tourist use in an agricultural district would only be allowed if there was no adverse affect on neighbors and nature. VanderMeulen expressed disappointment that the board didn’t delay approval of the parking lot, which he believes will increase traffic.

Planning Commission chair Dean Manikas disagreed.

“It’s an allowable use to put in a parking lot to access their trails,” Manikas told the Glen Arbor Sun. “Our master plan calls for whatever we can do to preserve forested lands in our forested district, and the Leelanau Conservancy is our best partner. We developed a checklist with standards for our watershed and our viewshed to preserve the natural beauty of Cleveland Township. This project checked all the boxes and met our standards for development.

“If someone else had bought (the Palmer Woods property), it could have been logged, and 20 homes could have been put in there.”

At the Nov. 14 Township Board meeting, Conservancy executive director Tom Nelson thanked local officials but also expressed sorrow that the parking lot issue had become so contentious.

In order to save (these) woods, a lot needed to happen, he said during public comments. The Conservancy raised $8 million dollars to acquire Palmer Woods and felt an obligation to provide meaningful public access to the property that keeps people safe and not in the roadway. Nelson added that they have removed two other satellite parking areas on the 1,100-acre property. But they deemed an auxiliary parking lot that fits 10 cars to keep people safe as prudent.

For VanderMeulen, the question remains: does mountain biking at Palmer Woods count as development or environmental preservation.

“We love adrenaline and excitement, but no one is watching birds or the dapple light in the forest while they’re shredding down a steep hill,” he said. “From an environmental standpoint, does it benefit us to burn more fossil fuels to drive to these mountain bike parks?”

Conservancy communications director Wood believes that activities like mountain biking offer a golden opportunity to reach the younger generation.

“We’ve seen a newer audience supporting us with donations and writing letters about how important (these activities are) for their mental and physical health. We believe the recreationists of today will become the conservationists of tomorrow.”


Readers voice Conservancy support

Following the online publication of this story in late November and promotion on social media, readers most reacted by celebrated the Leelanau Conservancy and the popular Palmer Woods trail network. A few of those comments are paraphrased below:


“It seems to me we are getting hung up on political correctness. The Conservancy provides a natural resource (land) with public access for healthy exercise. The upsides seem to outbalance any downsides.” — Don Coe


“The mountain biking is driving the conserving of more land for me. Palmer woods is creating a new demographic of conservancy supporters. Win, win.” — Brooke Dykuis


“It’s a compromise. We need people to experience nature if they are to appreciate and advocate for it, even if that means driving a car to get there. If the trails didn’t exist what would it be like? Perhaps all we’d have is people driving around in cars ignorant when it comes to our relationship with our life support system.” — M’Lynn Hartwell


“I’ve been mountain biking pretty much since Gary Fischer invented it in the early ’80s. Lived in Colorado, California, and Oregon, and have always enjoyed mountain biking in those states. Moved to Northern Michigan and could not believe the NO mountain biking — everywhere. Never seen less access to trails anywhere I’ve lived. I don’t get it. Michigan hates mountain biking. I LOVE Palmer Woods, and though I don’t make it over there nearly enough, I wish there was MORE of this. It’s the only legal biking trails in Leelanau County. Thirty minutes from where I live, the trails are incredibly well designed and maintained. I’d compare it to my favorite trails in Oregon, my favorite place to ride. Keep it up Leelanau Conservancy, I love the expansion plan, and I will donate MORE to this organization as long as they continue to support this sport.” — Will Harper


“Yes. I drive a vehicle to Palmer (as do most people) but this is an outstanding way to enjoy our natural environment, get exercise, and do something healthy vs. building yet another subdivision or (gasp, just what we don’t need any more of!) winery. Palmer Woods Rocks!” — Jenny Evans


“Both can be true. You can love the trails, love Palmer Woods and still worry about it being overdeveloped. I would like to see a bit more checks and balances when it comes to developing this beautiful land, the trails and parking lots. Our family enjoys the bike trails but I grew up playing in those woods and it makes me sad to see it continue to be developed. More does not always equal better, and I wonder how the Conservancy can maintain that further development of Palmer Woods supports its mission to “conserve the land, water, and scenic character of the Leelanau Peninsula.” — Lisa Hollenbeck Stewart


“17,000 acres preserved. 93 farms preserved. 1070 acres preserved in Palmer woods alone that includes mountain bike trails, cross country trails, skiing/snowshoeing trails, a beautiful fern garden, and 27 acres of deer enclosure to measure forest health. I think the debate can stop right there and the facts answer the question posed. Thank you Leelanau Conservancy for your tireless efforts to keep our county such a magical place to live and encouraging the next generation to love nature and the outdoors.” — Stephanie Berger-Nelson


“In your article you say, ‘Palmer Woods’ first mountain bike trail opened to great fanfare in November 2018. The destination has since expanded to 17 miles of rigorous, hilly trails that attract thrill seekers from throughout northern Michigan.’ Just to set the record straight I’m over 80 years old and love riding the trails at a slow pace. I love the scenery and climbing the hills, but not for thrills. I always find others that are like me just enjoying a leisurely ride. Promoting the idea that it was built for speed is wrong. Yes, some ride it that way, but the times I’ve been out there I see very little of that.” — Mike Terrell