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What is a rail trail?: A peek into Michigan's unique trail system

James Radabough

As a West Michigander, you may have donned running shoes for a quick jog down White Pine Trail, mounted your road or mountain bike for a weekend trip to Cadillac or even laced up rollerblades for a visit to West Michigan's smooth, lakeshore trails. With thousands of miles of trails throughout the Mitten state, an exploration of Michigan's unique "rail trails" reveals a rich history of advantageous pathways, state and local partnerships and the dedicated people working behind the scenes to make them possible.
As a West Michigander, you may have donned running shoes for a quick jog down White Pine Trail, mounted your road or mountain bike for a weekend trip to Cadillac or even laced up rollerblades for a visit to West Michigan's smooth, lakeshore trails. But how did this vast system of trails begin? And what exactly are these paths traversed by foot and wheel? With thousands of miles of trails throughout the Mitten state, an exploration of Michigan's unique "rail trails" reveals a rich history of advantageous pathways, state and local partnerships and the dedicated people working behind the scenes to make them possible.
 
"Crossing Michigan in a way you can't in a car"
 
So what exactly is a rail trail? State staff and community members create recreational trails by "utilizing former railroad corridors," says James Radabaugh, recently retired and longest-serving Michigan state trail coordinator. Specifically, the Michigan Department of National Resources (MDNR) and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) take advantage of these hundreds of abandoned railroad corridors throughout the state: purchasing them, converting them to trails and connecting them in dozens of interconnected trail systems for individuals, families, commuters and active people of all ages.
 
What are the benefits of rail trails? "It's an opportunity you can't have in any other trail experience," says Radabaugh. Since these recreational trails are built on rail corridors, the pathways are far from traffic and sometimes set deep in nature, allowing for a unique perspective on remote landscapes, bodies of water and wildlife. Essentially, traversing a rail trail is "crossing Michigan in a way you can't in a car," says Radabaugh. In addition, they provide "another method of being able to access public lands and state and federal forest(s)," he says.
 
Not to mention, "they are accessible," says Radabaugh. Built on the subtle slopes that accommodated train travel, rail trails have under five percent elevation in Michigan, with the majority between one and two percent. This flat elevation accommodates joggers and riders of all kinds, allowing for easy travel, especially for those recovering from an injury or those with a physical handicap.
 
How about a little history?
 
In the 1970s, Radabaugh explains, railroad companies began abandoning corridors that were specifically designed to carry iron ore and coal from previously successful mines in the Upper Peninsula. As mine extraction waned, the railroads were no longer needed, and these companies requested approval from the Federal Surface Transportation Board to abandon their corridors. After abandonment, the federal government gave first right of refusal to MDOT, and second right of refusal to the MDNR. As MDOT passed on many of these opportunities, the MDNR began snatching up corridors for use as recreational trails.
 
"We bought where we could buy," says Radabaugh, who also notes "acquiring railroad is opportunistic." In other words, the next two decades proved slow going for trail conversion, as the MDNR could only obtain railroad corridors as they became available at a glacial pace. "It was very, very, very slow," he says.
 
However, in the early 1990s, Radabaugh was hired as a consultant landscape architect in forest recreation and joined the effort to purchase and convert railroad corridors. Consolidating the planning documents and compiling the first trail initiatives that became the Trailways Act in 1994, Radabaugh helped develop this legislation that established the necessity to create a statewide trail network. With this new state support, the MDNR experienced accelerated growth through the 1990s and early 2000s.
 
One of these speedy purchases and developments was the Fred Meijer Clinton-Ionia-Shiawassee Trail just north of Lansing. Directed by former Governor Jennifer Granholm to acquire 42 miles of trails to support the Michigan Milk Producers Association in 2007, the MDNR and DOT acquired the miles of railroad corridor in the fall of 2007. "That was a very quick acquisition," says Radabaugh. With a funding package from MDOT and the Meijer foundation, the MDNR completed the project in just seven years, finishing a trail that crosses and benefits these farming communities in 2014.
 
A ribbon cutting is scheduled for April 2015 and the trail can be accessed near South Steele St. and West Adams St. in Ionia and near North Clinton Ave. and East Railroad St. in St. John's. This particular trail will eventually connect with others in Lowell, Greenville and Alma, potentially creating 125 miles of connected rail trail as a part of the Michigan Regional Rail Trail Network, and making it the 5th longest trail in the state.
 
A trail mile maker. A pure Michigan trail network
 
So what makes Michigan unique? "Michigan is a pretty large state," says Radabaugh. With thousands of miles of rails serving waning industries such as mining and logging, excess abandoned trails make the state ripe for trail conversion. "It's pretty remarkable how extensive the network is," he says. In addition, laws such as the Trailways Act and healthy partnerships between state and local governments have facilitated exponential growth.
 
Who else can we thank for these amazing trails? As Radabaugh looks forward to retirement after 12 years serving as the state trail coordinator, he is thankful for all of the organizations and individuals who continue to make rail corridor conversion possible. "Michigan couldn't have done all this without the local interested volunteers," he says. Although the MDNR and MDOT do much to acquire and maintain the trails at a state level, local support and funding is needed to facilitate the project from start to finish. Organizations such as the West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition (WMTGC) work with communities at the ground level to garner support and money, sometimes laboring for over a decade to make a project happen.
 
With years of experience under his belt and dozens of trails developed across the state, Radaboaugh can finally kick back and enjoy crossing Michigan's intricate trail system. "I expect I'll be able to go out and enjoy Michigan's trails," he says. Proud of his team and the progress made over the past 20 years, Radabaugh looks forward to seeing much of his work come to fruition on Michigan's unique rail trails. "We got a lot done," he says.
 
This article is part of an ongoing series, Moments on the Trails, and was made possible by the West Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition. For more information about the WMTGC, visit wmtrails.org.

Lauren F. Carlson is a freelance writer and editor, Aquinas alumna, and Grand Rapids native. Her work can be found at www.emptyframecreative.com, and she can be reached at lauren@emptyframecreative.com for story tips and feedback.

 
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