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Supporting Your Trails Voluntarily

Posted on November 27th, 2020

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November has been nice to us with a surplus of mild days to continue enjoying hikes in the woods and bike rides on paved paths. In this pandemic era of COVID-19 that has been a welcomed gift.

Whatever else you say about this year, the popularity of trails has been undisputable. In the latest Trail Talk blog for MichiganTrailMaps.com, Jim DuFresne writes about a somewhat obscured advisory board and its radical idea on how to fund the development and, more important, the maintenance of trails in the future.

By Jim DuFresne

We’re all trail users but it’s surprising how many of us have never heard of the Michigan Trails Advisory Council (MTAC) much less the Nonmotorized Advisory Workgroup. Yet you would be amazed the influence these obscured advisory boards have on trails; how we use them, where we build them and how much we should pay to enjoy them.

Jim DuFresne

MTAC advises the Department of Natural Resources and the governor’s office on the creation, development, operation and maintenance of motorized and nonmotorized trails in Michigan, including snowmobile, biking, equestrian, off-road vehicle and skiing. Within it are subgroups that advise the MTAC board and one of them is the Nonmotorized Advisory Workgroup.

I am a member of this eight-person workgroup, which develops policy proposals on everything nonmotorized; from rail-trails, paved pathways and greenways to trails for mountain biking, hiking and Nordic skiing. We even cover water trails.

This is how trail legislation and new regulations begin, as a common thread among members at a board meeting. Recently from out of our meetings came this idea; the Michigan Voluntary Trails Pass.

Hikers at Waterloo Recreation Area near Jackson.

There is little debate that the popularity of trails has exploded, even before the pandemic made them the safest places to recreate last spring. There is also little debate that they are badly underfunded, particularly when it comes to maintaining existing trails.

As the traditional contributors to the DNR budget – hunters and anglers – continue to decrease due to the changing demographics of outdoor users in Michigan, our workgroup has been focused on new funding sources for nonmotorized trails no matter who oversees them. They have been kicking this around ever since I was appointed in 2015.

The idea of a mandatory statewide trail pass was shelved in 2018 after the Michigan State Waterways Commission, another advisory body, passed a resolution calling for legislation to implement a $10 annual registration fee for kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. The outcry from paddlers was so deafening that the commission immediately rescinded it.

Now comes the voluntary trails pass. It’s not a fee or a tax because if you don’t pay you could still walk your dog on the local rail-trail.

For now, the Michigan Voluntary Trails Pass is being pitched as a $40 per year donation though, in the words of one member, that “is more of an eyeball figure.” Who knows what the price would be if it ever becomes reality. In lieu of paying, somebody could also contribute volunteer labor on a trail of his or her choice. Either way, each year you would receive a zipper tab of a different color and design, evidence of your annual support for the trails you are using.

Mountain bikers at the DTE-Energy Trail in Waterloo Recreation Area.

The message would be clear. Love trails? Use trails? Support your trails. Who else is going to if not the people who use them?

The fund could be tapped by non-motorized trail user groups as well as local units of government and nonprofit organizations that manage trails and could be used for a wide variety of projects, including development, maintenance, design, even promotion and marketing. The trail pass fund could also serve as a vehicle to increase donations and support from corporate or business sponsors.

There would be as much an equitable geographic distribution of the funds as possible. One idea is to develop an algorithm for distribution of the funds that would take into account the geography and user group of those who purchase a pass.  There were also discussions of having a “general donation” button on the website where the pass would be sold along with buttons targeting user groups. If mountain bikers wanted to give money only to the “mountain bike trails” pool, they could.

But most important, and this would be critical, the fund would be protected from legislative intervention and raiding and be transparent to those who purchase the pass.

“We felt strongly that people would be willing to purchase a voluntary trail pass if they could see where the funds are going,” said Jason Jones, who represents mountain bikers on the Nonmotorized Advisory Workgroup. “They need to have confidence in it.”

Michiganders have a long history of supporting trails and parks. But would they voluntarily do it on a statewide basis?

On the Nov. 3 ballot Oakland County voters were asked to not just renew the existing millage for the county’s current system of 13 parks but increase it for the next nine years.  The main selling point was the 80 miles of trails Oakland County Parks and Recreation maintains and its pledge to collaborate with towns and other local municipalities to expand trail systems outside designated parks.

The ballot initiative passed by almost 77 percent. Obviously “close-to-home recreation” was a convincing pitch.

A family of backpackers in northern Michigan.

The question is whether somebody in Marquette gives a hoot about trails in Detroit much less wants to help fund them.

Then there are all the trail advocacy non-profits, from the North Country Trail Association and the West Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition to the Top of Michigan Trails Council and Paddle Antrim. All of them spend a great deal of time fund-raising. Would they view the Michigan Voluntary Trails Pass as competition for scarce donation dollars even if they did benefit from the program?

“We need to grow the pie not just your piece of it,” said Jones. “We need to focus on (increased funding) for all non-motorized trails in Michigan. That needs to be our umbrella.”

What everybody can agree on is the path to any change in the way trails are funded is a long one. By the end of the year the Nonmotorized Advisory Workgroup hopes to send a recommendation to MTAC for consideration and that’s only the first step.

Who knows what the next step will be after that.

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