2013-01-09 / Front Page

Wilderness move stirs Trail opposition

By Patti Brandt of the Enterprise staff

In the wake of apparent bi-partisan support to designate 32,000 acres of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as Wilderness, opponents to the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail are now asking that the trail be ended three miles short of its original design.

Opponents who reside on Little Traverse Lake originally asked that the trail, which as designed would provide walkers and bikers with a path starting at the Benzie County Line and ending at Co. Rd. 651, be moved to a route closer to the Lake Michigan shoreline and away from their homes. However, given the fact that Congress appears closer to approving Wilderness designation for the area, a new call has gone out to shorten the trail.

Bill Irwin, president of the Little Traverse Lake Property Owners Association, was not fazed by efforts to officially establish Wilderness designation in the Lakeshore. The designation would allow the Heritage Trail to be constructed along the Little Traverse Lake Road right-ofway and Lake Michigan. The group has been a vocal opponent of having the trail go past their member properties, saying placement along the road right-of-way will destroy a wide swath of trees. If placed in the right-of-way, it will be unsafe for hikers and bikers, the association asserts.

The group is now seeking to end the trail at the beach located at the end of CR 669, or Bohemian Road. The trail, Irwin said, could come north to Bohemian Road and head west to the beach, where there is already a parking lot. That could be the trailhead, Irwin said.

But plans are already in place for the trail to continue north past Little Traverse Lake, according to Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

“The intention is still to connect it to Good Harbor beach at 651,” Ulrich said. “That remains the plan.”

The first section of what is designed to eventually be a 27-mile-long paved trail was constructed last spring and has been very popular. Starting at the Dune Climb, the trail heads north to Glen Arbor. The second section is slated for construction this fall or next spring, Ulrich said, and will go from the Dune Climb south to Empire. Other sections will go from Glen Arbor to Port Oneida, then to Bohemian Road, with the section going past Little Traverse Lake to CR 651, or Good Harbor Road, being the final phase.

The trail has also come under criticism in Empire Village. Residents have protested establishing a trailhead in the village that they fear will increase congestion.

The long-awaited official Wilderness designation moved through the Senate in the waning hours of the 113th Congress, though time ran out on an identical House bill. Now federal Legislators are renewing their efforts.

U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek (R-1st District) last week introduced legislation to designate the same area as Wilderness. House bill 163 will protect the National Lakeshore while ensuring that people continue to have access to the area, he said.

“Northern Michigan is very fortunate to be home to this extraordinary stretch of shoreline and I am proud to introduce legislation to help protect it,” Benishek said. “This bill strikes a common sense, balanced approach between conservation and recreation that nearly all Michiganders will support. I am hopeful that we can get this bill passed and delivered to the president’s desk so that future generations will also be able to enjoy the natural wonder that is Sleeping Bear Dunes.”

Identical to “The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act,” the Senate bill passed on Dec. 30, Benishek’s bill ensures that natural features of the area will be preserved, while keeping county roads outside of the designation. The right to hunt and fish in designated wilderness areas was protected in the Lakeshore’s enabling act, approved in 1970.

The official designation will not change the way the land is managed, as federal law has required the 32,000 acres of parkland be managed as Wilderness since 1982. Wilderness areas may not be disturbed by bikes or motorized vehicles and must remain untouched by human habitation or permanent structures — including paved trails.

Total cost for the trail is projected at about $10 million. The trail, which has received about $8 million in federal and state grants, will eventually fit into a larger system of trails in Michigan that will go from lake to lake.

Ulrich said he thinks the House bill will have good support, and that a Senate bill will also likely be reintroduced in the current Congressional session. The Senate bill that was passed was sponsored by Democratic senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow from Michigan.

Irwin said the Senate bill was passed by legislators who were waiting for resolution of the ‘fiscal cliff’ issue and didn’t have anything else to do, so they started passing bills.

“We really didn’t think it was going to pass this year,” Irwin said.

He also believes the Park Service did not provide enough opportunity for public input while designing the Trail’s path, and that an environmental impact statement for the trail failed to consider damage along Little Traverse Lake Road.

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