Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail hits roadblock on northeast expansion


Photo courtesy of TART Trails

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

A simmering feud between Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and TART Trails, and residents of Little Traverse Lake who oppose the northeast expansion of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is once again heating up.

The popular, multi-use bicycle trail, which stretches 22 miles from Empire through the National Lakeshore to Bohemian Road, is set to expand by 4.25 miles northeast to Good Harbor Trail. Tree clearing and construction are slated to begin this fall, and the extension will open in late 2025 or 2026. TART has raised nearly $5 million of the $12-14 million needed for this leg. The previous 22 miles of the trail cost approximately $10 million to build.

But early this month the Little Traverse Lake Association released an environmental impact study the group had commissioned from Borealis Consulting, which found that Segment 9 of the Heritage Trail would require the removal of nearly 7,300 trees and trespass through sensitive wilderness, wetlands and dunes, including four vulnerable ecosystems protected by state and federal regulations. The study drew the attention of the Detroit Free Press, which published a critical story on Feb. 6. (Click here for a link to the Borealis study.)

The Lake Association unsuccessfully sued the federal government in 2015 over the adequacy of the National Park’s 2009 environmental assessment (EA) of the trail. That Park study found “no significant impact” to the environment for the nonmotorized trail. Sleeping Bear Dunes superintendent Scott Tucker said the Borealis study “highlighted all the things the EA identified in 2009. There were no surprises in there.”

But the Lake Association stated that the Park’s EA did not include a botanical survey, adding, “The Borealis study found that the staked-out route lies entirely within the vulnerable wooded dune and swale complex, rather than avoiding the protected critical dune area as suggested in the proposed 2009 trailway plan and map.”

Of the nearly 7,300 trees identified in the Borealis study, 82% are saplings or small trees with diameters of 10 inches or less. The study identified 284 “large” or “very large” trees with diameters of 30 or more inches. Tucker said the Park has directed trail designers with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to “meander around the largest trees.” A spokesperson with MDOT confirmed to the Glen Arbor Sun that the final design, which is expected to be complete by June, “will be routed around larger mature trees as the topography allows.”

MDOT operations engineer Krista Phillips also estimated that 18% of the total trail surface of Segment 9 will be boardwalk built over wetland areas. The need for more boardwalk, combined with post-pandemic inflation, accounts for the relatively high cost compared to previous sections of the trail.

The Heritage Trail’s first segment between Glen Arbor and the Sleeping Bear Dune Climb broke ground in August 2011 during a ceremony attended by then U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and National Lakeshore staff and opened to users in 2012. Occasional opposition to the trail — based on the opinion that a 10-foot-wide asphalt surface with two-foot buffers on either side represents a paved highway through nature — has often receded into the brush. The trail, maintained for bikers in the spring, summer and fall, and skiers in the winter by Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, has overall proven popular.

But the Borealis study re-exposed the rift between Little Traverse Lake residents and trail advocates. Doug Verellen, a former member of the Little Traverse Lake board, which commissioned the Borealis study last fall, accused the National Park and TART Trails of lacking transparency about the environmental impact of Segment 9. He also called the 4.25-mile stretch a “trail to nowhere” with “little demand” based on his perception of low ridership between Port Oneida and Bohemian Road, the last portion of the trail completed in 2016.

Though Verellen calls himself “a big trail user and supporter of TART,” he questions whether the National Lakeshore is acting as an environmental steward.

“When you carve a vector through an area and remove trees, you heat things up, invite invasive species, and spoil an ecosystem. Twenty years ago, we were talking about climate change. Now we’re seeing evidence of it all over the planet.”

Verellen sees a National Park that favors “creating recreation” while failing its “mission to preserve and conserve.”

“Does this make the Park and TART the biggest developers in Leelanau County?” he asks.

That question mirrors a debate last year over whether the Leelanau Conservancy’s plan to build a new Palmer Woods mountain biking parking lot represents development or environmental stewardship by encouraging outdoor recreation.

Tucker, who became superintendent of Sleeping Bear Dunes in 2016, after the Heritage Trail had already opened, wants the more than 1.5 million people who visit each year to “park their cars and explore areas of the Lakeshore in a nonmotorized way.”

“We are tasked with creating recreational opportunities for those who visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. A place for people to get out and about and explore.”

Tucker describes the Heritage Trail as an action item of the Lakeshore’s 2009 General Management Plan and the conclusion of a long, transparent process that included more than 100 public meetings around Leelanau County. “These decisions have been made publicly, not in a vacuum,” he said. “I see it as the completion of a project that followed all rules, compliance, and public engagement.”

Early conversations of a nonmotorized trail through the National Lakeshore were born of a dream expressed by the M-22 Byway Committee to have a trail that one day links Traverse City with Leelanau and Benzie Counties.

“Parks all over the country are providing alternative means to access areas outside of our cars,” said TART Trails director Julie Clark. “I think it’s pretty cool the National Park Service has this vision.

“I can’t wait for Little Traverse Lake folks to be able to hop on their bikes to visit Good Harbor Bay.”

Clark sees this northeastern stretch of the Heritage Trail as a way to connect people in Leland and northern Leelanau County who want to access the trail. M-204, the state highway that runs through Lake Leelanau and bisects the County, is four miles north of Good Harbor Road, the Heritage Trail’s new end point. A trail along that route could one day allow users to bike all the way from Empire to Suttons Bay, with access to the Leelanau Trail and Traverse City. She said that 204 has been talked about as a trail extender.

“We’re in a culture where driving is easier to do. We don’t yet have the right infrastructure to ‘Copenhagen it’,” Clark said. “I see trails as part of a bigger solution to addressing real issues we face, like climate change, equity and access.”

With plans in place to begin building the final leg of the Heritage Trail later this year, Tucker hopes that, when complete, the 27-mile trail will win over skeptics.

“We can’t make everyone happy. But this trail will be here for many years to come.”