A passion for green spaces: Friends groups develop, preserve the trails

Behind the scenes and often unnoticed, volunteers with a love of the state's unique trails continue to make West Michigan's pathways possible. 
If you live in West Michigan, you've likely taken advantage of one of the dozens of trails that traverse this area of the state, or witnessed the development of an old rail line as it transforms from a dirt path to a smooth, finished pathway. West Michigan's trails seem to spring up overnight, and some seem to have existed in the region forever as an institution in the nature/fitness community. But developing and maintaining these trails is no easy task. Behind the scenes, various friends groups—or nonprofits made up solely of volunteers—fundraise for, plan, maintain, and develop trails in their various stages, exuding a passion for outdoor spaces and a love for these pathways that make West Michigan unique.

"We're the ones that kind of watch over [the trail]" says Tim Nink, vice president of the Friends of the Musketawa—a pathway that begins in Muskegon and ends in Grand Rapids—and Fred Meijer Berry Junction Trail—a recently completed pathway that traverses Whitehall, Muskegon and Muskegon Heights. Noting that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) sanctions the trail and assists with funding through various grants, they "are not out there all the time," says Nink. The Musketawa and Meijer Berry friends groups provide "somebody to watch over these public assets."

Tom Anderson, board member of the West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition (WMTGC) and owner of The Bicycle Rack in Muskegon, agrees. "They're the ones that make it look good [and] feel responsible for it," he says. Because government officials are so busy, they are rarely afforded the time to explore the trails and notice any maintenance needs. Thus, the friends groups usually provide the only boots-on-the-ground effort in maintaining the pathways.

Tom LindrupServing as VP of the Musketawa friends group for four years and the Fred Meijer Berry group for about a year and a half, Nink discusses the unique needs of each trail and the labor required to maintain the trail for the public. For the Musketawa, Nink and his group work on various beautification projects, including planting plants and flowers, staining wood observation decks, painting signs, and installing railroad memorabilia that informs users of the history and former use of the pathway. Nink also organizes events on the trail, such as The Gold Spike Trail Tour II, a one-day bicycle tour of the Musketawa Trail and Fred Meijer Pioneer Trail that took place in May 2014.

Just completed in September of 2014, Nink notes that the Fred Meijer Berry trail requires development-specific projects, such as fundraising and building an informative website. Tom Lindrup, president of the newly formed Fred Meijer Berry trail friends group, works with Nink to enhance, promote and maintain the trail. "It's been fun," says Lindrup, of working to develop the seven and a half miles of trail that has already been completed. Connecting Whitehall and Montague (the William Field Memorial Hart Montague Trail) to North Muskegon and Muskegon (the Muskegon Lakeshore and Musketawa Trails), Lindrup is excited about participating in communities coming together. "They're all connected," he says, of the lakeshore towns that line the trails and greenways.

Timothy NinkWith such unique aspects as a large portion traversing through fields and a section traveling right behind Michigan's Adventure amusement park, Lindrup works to attract runners, cyclists and families to the trail. Most of all, he seeks to "collaborate and connect as many of these areas as we can." With the last four miles planned for completion and paving this summer, Lindrup hopes to plan future events on the trail. "We would love to see century rides," he says of these 100-plus mile cycling events.

Toni Thompson, president of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail friends group, who also sits on the board of the Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance (MTGA) faces her own unique challenges when working to develop and support the trail. With 22 miles complete of an eventual 35-mile trail in the Kalamazoo area, the pathway for this trail was not laid out completely on an old rail line. "We have very little rail," says Thompson. Thus, the friends group must fundraise more dollars to develop a new pathway for the trail.

Nonetheless, "the friends are not alone in this," says Thompson. She and the volunteers of her friends group have worked closely with the MDNR and the Parks Foundation of Greater Kalamazoo to fundraise and develop the trail. Hard at work to cultivate these beneficial relationships to develop the trail since 1991, Thompson says, "partnerships strengthen any campaign.” These partnerships allowed for surprising developments in the trail project, such as the completion of the trail's tunnel under US 131.

After more than a decade in the planning and fundraising stage, construction began on the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail in 2003, it opened in 2008 and the friends group continues to work on developing the remaining miles. "Our group of volunteers has been very instrumental," says Thompson, noting that their efforts may have spanned decades, but continue to be fruitful.

Through dozens of friends groups throughout the state supporting a vast network of Michigan's trails, passionate volunteers continue to assist in the development, maintenance and beautification of rail trails. "The friends groups are like frosting on the cake," says Anderson. "Without them, I don't think the trails would be maintained as well." Behind the scenes and often unnoticed, those with a love of the state's unique pathways continue to make Michigan's trails possible. "My love of green space is what really got me started," says Thompson.

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.
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