How Michigan became a land of trails

"These are investments that are going to pay dividends for generations. You don't get a chance very often to make these things happen."

The Michigan Air Line Trail, linking the Metro Detroit suburbs of Commerce Township, Wixom, and Walled Lake, has quickly become a popular destination, with some users hitting the trail last summer before the asphalt was even fully laid.


But trail manager John Hensler says trail organizers "wouldn't be where we are right now" – and a completed trail would still be years away – if not for the $1.4 million grant the project received from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF) in 2009. The grant represented over half of the total purchase price for the 5.5 miles of former railroad right-of-way that the trail now occupies.


"It's invaluable, the amount of help that they gave us," Hensler says.


The same is true of countless trail projects across the state of Michigan that have received a financial boost from MNRTF. MNRTF uses the proceeds from Michigan oil, gas, and mineral lease and royalty payments to acquire and develop public recreational lands. Just since 2011, MNRTF has disbursed over $180 million to trail and greenway-related projects throughout the state.


Andrea LaFontaine, executive director of the nonprofit Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, says MNRTF is particularly valuable for its willingness to fund projects even in their infancy. She says established trail projects may have less trouble finding funding for expansion or improvement work, but it can be difficult to get a brand-new project off the ground.


"The people at the [Michigan Department of Natural Resources] and on the Trust Fund board understand the importance of trails and how they provide a sense of connection and a sense of community," she says. "... The Trust Fund sort of ignites the drive for community trails."


From border to border in Washtenaw County


MNRTF has played a significant role in igniting that drive not just for numerous individual trail projects, but also for an overall statewide movement towards trail and greenway projects. Bob Tetens, retired director of Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation, first became involved in trail projects in the early '80s, when he worked on the Huron River Bikeway Study. At that time, he says residents were often resistant to trails and projects were "so difficult to get going."


"It was sort of like land preservation in its early days," he says. "You didn't have enough support and there wasn't enough momentum."


That started to change in the '90s, as public interest in trails grew. Tetens, then executive director of the Urban Area Transportation Study (now known as the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study), began to conceptualize an ambitious project: a 35-mile trail that would stretch from Portage Lake, near Washtenaw County's northern border, to Ford Lake on the county's eastern border. Tetens says county staff started focusing on getting as many segments of the planned route, known as the Border-to-Border (B2B) Trail, "as shovel-ready as possible" in hopes of winning additional funding.

B2B Trail off Huron River Drive in Dexter. Photo by Doug Coombe.


They succeeded in a major way in 2011, when MNRTF awarded a $500,000 grant towards the completion of a crucial five-mile stretch of trail connecting the village of Dexter to Hudson Mills Metropark. The grantee for the project was the Huron-Clinton Metroparks Authority, but Tetens says a "big cast of characters" including the parks department collaborated at length on the effort and considered it a joint success.


MNRTF was far from the only funder on the project, whose total price tag was estimated at $2.89 million. The county and Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) also made major contributions. LaFontaine says MNRTF often serves as a crucial piece in a larger funding puzzle for trail projects, especially those involving funders who may require matching funds.


"When you have that investment from the Trust Fund, it's like a feather in your cap that you can then take to other funders and say, 'They're investing this much in us. Can you either match that or can you double it?'" she says.


The trust fund formally adopted trail projects as one of its grantmaking priorities in 2013, and it's continued to invest in the B2B. Most recently, Washtenaw County wrapped up work on a 1.2-mile stretch of the trail that will help connect Dexter to Ann Arbor, supported by a $300,000 MNRTF grant.


"These are investments that are going to pay dividends for generations," Tetens says. "You don't get a chance very often to make these things happen."

B2B Trail off Huron River Drive in Dexter. Photo by Doug Coomb


Forging the Iron Belle


While impressive in and of itself, the B2B is just one small segment of an even more ambitious trail project in which MNRTF has made significant investments. When complete, the Iron Belle Trail will cover over 2,000 miles from the western Upper Peninsula to the city of Detroit, with distinct biking and hiking routes. Some parts of the route will require the construction of new trail segments.


"When they came out with the Iron Belle initiative, that was like throwing gasoline on a fire in terms of trail development," Tetens says. "Everybody's scrambling because there are so much support and so much interest in it right now."


MNRTF recently funded two new projects along the trail in the Upper Peninsula, where the Iron Belle's hiking route follows the same route as the North Country Trail, a 4,600-mile trail stretching from North Dakota to Vermont. In 2017 MNRTF made a $90,000 grant to improve the trail at Ontonagon County's O Kun De Kun Falls, as well as a $300,000 grant to establish a new bridge along the trail over the Little Iron River in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.


Work has yet to begin on the latter project. But Kenny Wawsczyk, regional trail coordinator for the North Country Trail, says the trailhead at O Kun De Kun Falls was "packed" on Memorial Day weekend with visitors taking advantage of a new trail where there used to be just "1.4 miles of walking in clay and water." Wawsczyk says MNRTF has been invaluable in providing funding, especially for the expensive Little Iron River project.


"Without it, we probably would still be looking for that type of money," he says.


The Iron Belle will also rely heavily on connecting large stretches of preexisting trails like the B2B, many of which have been funded by MNRTF. Prime examples can be found in the Downriver Linked Greenways, a network of over 100 land and water trails in Metro Detroit. MNRTF has granted over $2.6 million to Downriver Linked Greenways projects, notably including the North-South Connector and East-West Connector. Both were completed prior to the Iron Belle's conception, but they're now part of that trail's hiking route.

Downriver Delta Trail in Ecorse. Photo by Doug Coombe.


Mary Bohling, co-chair of Downriver Linked Greenways, echoes Tetens in noting that MNRTF was crucial in providing a match for federal grant dollars offered through MDOT. And she says there's been almost immediate high demand for the resulting trails.


"I remember going out and driving while they were laying the asphalt for the [East-West Connector], and there were people walking behind the big rollers while the asphalt was still steaming," she says. "I thought, 'Okay, there's demand for this because people can't even wait for it to be done.'"


"They will help you get it done"


MNRTF has touched a multitude of trail projects across the state, and trail advocates say there's still much more work to do. The trust fund has made multiple investments in the Frederick Meijer White Pine Trail, a 92-mile route running from Comstock Park (north of Grand Rapids) to Cadillac. MNRTF funded paving of the trail from Big Rapids to Reed City, a 12-mile stretch, in 1997; and paving from Reed City to Leroy, a 13-mile stretch, in 2017. David Heyboer, chair of the Friends of the White Pine Trail, says residents of the communities the trail runs through consider it "a jewel in our backyard." But, he notes, 28 miles of it are still yet to be paved.


"Then it'll be a blacktop strip all the way to Cadillac, and people love to ride to Cadillac," Heyboer says. "Hopefully the Trust Fund stays in place and does more to help these projects get completed and help the communities along the trail prosper from the business that it brings to all those various communities."

North South Trail BASF Waterfront Park in Wyandotte. Photo by Doug Coombe.


Tetens anticipates that with Michigan's overall "cultural shift" towards trails, MNRTF will continue to play a key role in creating new non-motorized routes for Michiganders to get out and explore their state.


"The Trust Fund is so strong now and so accustomed to funding trail projects that if you've got a good project – and a good project is broadly defined – they will help you get it done," he says. "It's just incredible what's happening now as far as trails."

“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.
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