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Petition Update: DNR reports on new Vasa fat bike trail

Mon, Nov  24, 2014 - By Mike Muha

The group "Vasa Skiers" provided an update to the original petition opened on Change.org back in April 2014, following the recent DNR meeting with skiers and bikers on November 20, 2014. This is the full text of the press release by "Vasa Skiers":

Nov 24, 2014 — This is a fifth fall 2014 update for everyone who signed our petition seeking a DNR Director's Order to ban fat bikes from the groomed Vasa Pathway ski trails near Traverse City, MI.

This update is a summary of the Nov. 20 public meeting with Tim Schreiner, a Michigan DNR Parks & Recreation district supervisor based in Cadillac, reporting on plans for a new fat bike trail developed as an alternative to the groomed Vasa Pathway ski trails.

Schreiner opened the meeting with a brief recap of last winter’s controversy over fat bikes on the groomed Vasa Pathway ski trails. He described our petition request for a DNR Director’s Order banning fat bikes on the Vasa Pathway ski trails and his rationale for not forwarding the request up the DNR hierarchy for consideration.

In his view, Schreiner said, there was no documented danger to the forest nor a pronounced threat to trail users – two criteria that typically drive such orders. He also said Director’s Orders can take a year or two to secure. He said the DNR wanted a more immediate solution to the ski trail controversy.

Schreiner talked about the creation in April of an ad hoc committee of local ski and cycling organizations he invited to help develop a solution. The committee developed a formal DNR “trail proposal” to create a fat bike trail in the Vasa area of the Pere Marquette State Forest as an alternative to the Vasa ski trail.

The proposal involved widening sections of the existing Vasa Single Track mountain bike trail and creating new sections that together form a 15K fat bike trail network. Access would be via the existing parking lot and VST trailhead off Supply Road and from Timber Ridge Resort. The DNR has agreed to plow the Supply Road parking lot through the winter, with support from Traverse City State Park staff. Trail work began in the summer and is now pretty much complete.

The trail is referred to as the Winter Sports Singletrack by TART. Others have stuck with Vasa Single Track. Tourism press mentions sometimes just go with Vasa fat bike trail.

The formal trail proposal was submitted Sept. 24 and approved by DNR hierarchy on Oct. 28. Through a combination of volunteer efforts, fund raising, and DNR support, Schreiner said, the new trail was developed and approved in record time compared to the normal pace of DNR decisions on trails. Schreiner did not share a copy of the formal trail proposal.

Schreiner next turned to “fat bike events” (meaning large races) already approved in the Vasa area for the coming ski season. Outside events on state trails must be approved through a permit process managed by the DNR.

Apparently at least four permit requests have already been filed for fat bike races in the Vasa area. Two were approved.
-- One is the fat bike race on Feb. 14 included for a second year as part of the North American Vasa weekend of races.
-- The second is one of four races promoted by Einstein Cycles as a “Short’s Brewery Fat Bike Series” (bit.ly/1oZozga). One permit request for a race on Feb. 1 was approved. Two others pitched for the Vasa, starting at Timber Ridge Resort, were apparently denied. They would probably now take place on Timber Ridge property. (The fourth race is at Crystal Mountain.)

Schreiner said he will weigh event requests on two criteria: (1) If the race route promotes usage of the new fat bike trail. (2) If the race route would have “minimal impact” on the existing Vasa Pathway ski trail. Routes for the two approved races were not provided.

So it sounds like the DNR will support fat bike races on the new trail, but take a dim view of races involving Vasa ski trails. That’s as close as the DNR has come during this controversy to prescribing designated ski trail status for the Vasa ski trail.

Schreiner concluded with a short list of future goals under consideration for winter use of the Vasa trails:

  • Improvements to the existing 10K and 25K Vasa Pathway ski trails.
  • Creating a singletrack connector trail from the Bunker Hill trailhead to the new fat bike trail.
  • Expanding the new fat bike trail from 15K to 30K.

Schreiner said future plans depend on continued collaboration between community groups, ski, and fat bike interests. And for the first time he invited others in the community to join the ad hoc committee. He asked members of the committee to stand and be recognized for their work.

Schreiner also made a point to say the DNR remains committed to quality cross-country ski trails. He noted the annual grant the DNR provides to TART to support grooming the Vasa ski trail. And he acknowledged the long history of leadership, volunteer efforts, and financial support from the ski community that created and sustains the Vasa ski trail.

Schreiner said skiers would no doubt encounter some fat bikes on the groomed Vasa ski trails, and thought bikers might encounter other users on the fat bike trail. He urged ski and fat bike interests to work together under this new arrangement for the sake of both user groups.

Where does this leave the Vasa trails and our nascent Vasa Skiers group?

Winter Sports Singletrack: The new trail is described by the DNR as a fat bike trail. Most people and news accounts do the same (bit.ly/11nPB64). TART continues to push the “multi-use” trail label in its tourist promotions and grooming badge appeals. Physically, the trail is a packed, 36-inch or so wide trail groomed for fat bikes. The trail could accommodate hikers, snowshoers, and classic skiers. Even given state forest policy on multi-use trails, prospects seem slim that hikers or skiers will venture out on a trail labeled with new bright yellow signs as a “Fat Bike Loop,” in an area long devoted solely to bikers, and which is shaped and groomed specifically for fat bike use. The new trail is clearly a fat bike trail. No surprise. No problem. And congratulations again to everyone who worked to create the trail so quickly.

Vasa Pathway ski trail: The groomed Vasa Pathway ski trail has not received any comparable formal or informal “ski trail” designation in recent signage, promotion, or official suggested use. Still, between the lines of all the recent pronouncements, it’s seems the DNR and some members of the committee hope bikers embrace the new fat bike trail and leave the Vasa ski trail to skiers.

But hope is not policy.

Bikers may indeed embrace the new trail and a winter of happy, separate co-existence follows in the Vasa. If bikers see the new trail as simply doubling their range throughout the Vasa, the fear among the hopeful is trail damage and negative encounters on the ski trail will reignite the controversy.

Certainly, if things go well, there will be reason to celebrate.

If not, then beyond a Director’s Order there are many other options available locally and in Lansing to seek adequate protection for the ski trails. Anyone who lived through the battle over oil drilling in the Pigeon River Forest, or paid attention to more recent efforts to protect the AuSable River watershed, Hartwick Pines, Kolke Creek, or Fisherman’s Island State Park, knows state policy is never static.

Vasa Skiers would respond to deteriorating conditions on the Vasa ski trails from a different Internet platform and with new measures. Such a move would be announced in a future update.

Thank you for your continued interest and support.

Here’s hoping…
Vasa Skiers