Heritage trails highlight unique recreational opportunities

Heritage trails in both the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan continue to make progress this year as regions seek ways to honor what makes them unique while creating new recreation opportunities for residents and tourists.

In the Grand Traverse area of northwest lower Michigan, work has already begun on the first section of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. The first section connecting Glen Arbor to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore dune climb is scheduled to be completed by July 4. When the entire project is finished, trail supporters hope it will stretch 27 miles from the northern end of the dunes north to Good Harbor Bay.

In Marquette County in the Upper Peninsula, a key 13-mile section of the Iron Ore Heritage Trail is scheduled to be built later this year and will connect Negaunee to Marquette by paved trail. When completed, the entire trail will stretch 48 miles from Republic to Chocolay Township and provide lessons around the mining heritage of the region. Some portions will allow for motorized use, but many miles are for non-motorized use only.

Although recreational opportunities remain a key use of both trails, they provide another benefit: increased non-motorized transportation. In fact, the Federal Transit Authority provided the Sleeping Bear trail with a $1.34 million transit-in-parks grant this year.

"They believe it will offer a transportation alternative to driving your auto from one site to another within the park," says Pam Darling, development director of Traverse Area Recreational Trails, a group helping bring the trail to reality.

Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, says the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore had no trails open to bicycles before the plan to build the heritage trail, leaving visitors to ride their bikes along the side of busy roads. The project is key in moving visitors around the park safely.

"Bicycles are already a popular mode of recreation and transportation and will only become more so," Ulrich says. "The opportunities this trail will provide are really significant."

Similarly, the Michigan Department of Transportation provided a $77,000 grant to the Iron Ore trail that will help fund the section between Marquette and Negaunee.

Iron Ore Heritage Trail administrator Carol Fulsher says many people plan to use the trail to commute on their bicycles.

"I've had so many people ask me when the trail is going to be finished, because they want to use the trail to get to work," Fulsher says. "We're (also) trying to have pavement to a lot of businesses in (Marquette Township) so people can use different methods of transportation in getting to the businesses."

The ideas behind both trails can be traced back a decade, but only in the past five or so years have they become closer to reality.

In the case of the Iron Ore trail, a survey of the region found many residents wanted to see more bicycle trails. The area is already known for its Noquemanon Trail Network, which allows non-motorized usage such as cross-country skiing or mountain biking. However, it does not connect the communities of the area.

The Iron Ore trail will join three of Marquette County's largest towns--Ishpeming, Negaunee and Marquette--together with a paved trail. (The western section of the trail currently piggybacks with the unpaved Greenwood Grade, which allows both motorized and non-motorized access from Ishpeming to Republic.)

"We've always felt it's a good project for the region," Fulsher says. "One, we want to bring people here by building a trail large enough that people will come here to spend a couple days using the trail. Two, people want these amenities (when they) make the decision to move here. Bike paths are a big amenity to regions. Home prices are higher along bike paths (according to a National Association of Realtors study in 2002)."

The Sleeping Bear trail began its life in the Leelanau Scenic Heritage Route Committee. Two local highways, M-22 and M-109, were certified as Michigan Heritage routes. However, the group found in a 2001 study that narrow shoulders along the roads made them unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists. Beginning in 2005, the National Parks Service studied and found a need for a multi-use trail through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. From that, developing the details of the idea and finding funding through public and private fund-raising began.

"Our mission is to preserve and invite people in to enjoy our natural and cultural heritage," Ulrich says.

As with Fulsher in Marquette, Sleeping Bear trail supporters believe there could be a positive economic boost from the trail.

"Sleeping Bear Dunes was named the most beautiful place in America last year according to Good Morning America viewers," Darling says. "We think the park is going to see increased visitors this year and here on out."

She says a recent study found bicycle tourism is a growing segment of the travel market and that although people might be touring by bicycle, they seek out lodging and restaurants in the area.

"People more and more turn to something they can power themselves, especially in a place like this that will be a fantastic ride," Ulrich says.

With gasoline becoming a costly concern and environmental awareness about the true costs of fossil fuel usage, "green" tourism could become the norm in regions that planned ahead to make themselves more friendly to bicyclists and other silent-sport enthusiasts.

The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail and Iron Ore Heritage Trail seem primed to take advantage of that opportunity.

Kurt Mensching is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Marquette. He also manages BlessYouBoys.com. More information on Kurt can be found at KurtMensching.info.
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