Traverse City News and Events

Parks Officials: Stay Off "Rogue" Trails

By Beth Milligan | May 23, 2020

Local parks and conservation staff are battling a growing number of illegal or "rogue" trails at the Grand Traverse Commons Natural Area, including bike paths that are destroying sensitive habitat and posing erosion and safety issues at the park. Leaders are pleading for the public’s cooperation in sticking to designated trails as they begin creating a new master trail plan for the entire site.

Informal trails – those created either incidentally by foot traffic veering off from designated trails or intentionally by individuals using tools to carve out paths or build up berms – have been a recurring issue at the Commons for years, according to Parklands Steward Tom Vitale of the Grand Traverse Conservation District, which helps maintain the park. Informal trails were initially concentrated on a parcel called the State 40, 40 acres of former state land on the west boundary of the Commons stretching from Copper Ridge over to Carlson Drive and up to North Long Lake Road. With little active oversight in the past, numerous bike paths were forged on the property before it was conveyed to Garfield Township in 2017.

Vitale says in the last two to three years, rogue trails have spread out from the State 40 parcel and are now pervasive across the entire park. “It’s ventured out from there to the rest of the Commons area,” he says. “The biggest problem is you’ve got them criss-crossing left and right all over the place. There’s no cohesive plan. Without a plan, it creates hazards for people; they don’t know which ways the bikes are going. There are a lot of blind hills and curves. People are also building jumps out there, which is another issue.”

In addition to safety risks, informal trails pose numerous environmental threats, Vitale says. “The Commons has some great intact habitat back there,” he says. “There’s a good diversity of different types of ecosystem and native species.” Bike paths tear up that habitat, Vitale says, and also are prone to heavy erosion – a concern for the Commons’ watersheds, including the fragile Kids Creek and other wetlands, artisan springs, and tributaries on the property.

Land Steward Specialist Steve Lagerquist with the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy says the primary focus when building official trails in parks is their long-term sustainability. While the Conservancy doesn't manage the Commons, the organization has dealt with trail-building at its own properties. While creating formal trails, experts evaluate soil conditions, slope, and topography, with a botanist walking the potential trail path to ensure it won’t destroy any sensitive species. “Most folks don't have the expertise or the knowledge to be aware of” those factors when they’re building their own trails, Lagerquist says. “Social trails are fun, but they can be really problematic – and they’re not sustainable.”

Vitale says it’s likely some informal trails have been created accidentally, or by those who assume – because the Commons is a public park – that they have the right to forge new paths. However, only the park’s management groups have the legal authority to build trails at the park. “Everything that happens there should be designated and approved and done through the right processes,” says Vitale. “To make trails happen legitimately, you need things like fencing on hillsides and soil erosion permits.”

There is also a small group of users – bringing in their own tools, with signs of rototillers and complex berm and trail-building equipment – who clearly know they are breaking the rules. “We have signage up that is getting ripped down nearly daily,” Vitale says. “We’ll do a lot of work covering up the trails, and the next day we’ll go back and it’s been gone over again. It’s very frustrating. It’s a free-for-all approach…there are a select few who are ruining it for everyone else.”

Lagerquist says the Land Conservancy had a similar experience when the organization first acquired Arcadia Dunes. A lack of enforcement – and a lack of designated trails leading to desirable spots, or a lack of certain types of trails, like biking – can intensify rogue trail usage, he says. “The challenge with the Commons is getting folks to adopt what you’re trying to do (with designated trails),” he says. “The mountain bikers have been able to do what they want for years, so it becomes hard to deter.”

Vitale says efforts are underway to address both enforcement and the overall trail system design for the Commons – both of which could help cut down on informal trails. Garfield Township and Conservation District staff are in talks with law enforcement about stepping up patrols of the trails, and are looking at installing more cameras throughout the property. Trail users can also report violations to trails@gtcd.org. While staff hope to reduce social trails primarily through public outreach and education, they’re prepared to pursue legal action if necessary. “It’s destruction of property, and would likely have the same type of penalties that go with that anywhere else,” Vitale says.

Garfield Township Parks and Recreation commissioners are in the early stages of identifying a community planning process to create a new master plan for the Commons, including its trail system. Vitale says that even some of the formal trails at the Commons aren’t sustainable long term, with many dating back to the old State Hospital days and deteriorating under heavy modern use. “The goal for the Commons is to get the multiple owners at the table” to consider the future of the park, Vitale says, with community input and eventual consulting expertise. “Hopefully we can get a world-renowned trail designer in there,” he says, adding the goal is to accommodate a diverse set of user groups at the park.

Lagerquist notes the Land Conservancy experienced initial resistance at Arcadia Dunes from users acclimated to social trails, but was able to win them over when the organization rolled out the park’s new designated trail system. “When you build a nice trail and get people to the spots they want to go, they’ll embrace the new trail and abandon the old trail,” he says. “Once the trail was in and they saw how great it was, they loved it at Arcadia. I think the end product at the Commons will be good for hikers and bikers. If you make a really nice trail system, they’ll adopt it.”

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