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Editorial: HMCA Resists Input on Huron River Trail

Sun, Jun  5, 2005 - By Larry Noodén

Huron River Hike-Bike Trail

MDNR has scheduled a public informational meeting/hearing on Wed., June 9 from 6-8 at the Scio Township Hall (827 N Zeeb Rd) to discuss the trail along the Huron River from N Territorial Rd to Dexter-Huron Metropark and eventually to Ann Arbor.  The Scio Twp Hall is on the east side of Zeeb Rd ca. ¼ mile north  of I94.

If you are concerned about our local natural areas, you will want to participate in this hearing.  This is an important time for you to speak out.  I expect oral and written commentary will be solicited by the MDNR.

Here's some background for those who are interested.

This trail will go through or near some of the best and most sensitive natural areas (e.g., splendid forests, tall grass prairies, oak savannas, a perched fen which host a wide array of rare plants and animals) left in Washtenaw County.  In addition, much of this portion of the Huron River is protected by the Natural Rivers Protection Act.  It is a beautiful stretch of relatively undisturbed river enjoyed by fisherman, paddlers, birders, etc.

This is one of the last great natural places in SE Michigan, so there is great potential for irreparable environmental destruction here. Nonetheless, it is possible to increase public access and still preserve or even facilitate preservation of sensitive areas if done carefully.  In addition to careful trail placement, it is important to keep the trail footprint minimal, pavement <10 ft wide and <2 ft of clearing on each side.
This will also greatly reduce the maintenance costs due to weathering and the need for mowing and brush clearing.

Several of us have been working on this for more than a year, and the stretch from Dexter to Dexter-Huron Metropark looks good (Washtenaw Co Parks in the lead), whereas the segment from N Territorial Rd to Dexter (HCMA in the lead) is embroiled in problems.  The Huron River Watershed Council (Laura Rubin and Paul Cousins) has the lead on this, but others such as the Michigan Botanical Club (Tony Reznicek and Larry Noodén), the Huron Valley group of the Sierra Club (Dave Brooks) and the Paddlers (Ron Sell) have been heavily involved.  In addition to numerous meetings and hearings, we have hiked the shores and paddled the river.  We have been operating as a loose coalition CHEC (Clinton-Huron Ecological Coalition) that works mostly proactively with the HCMA (Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority) on behalf of our natural areas under their stewardship.

Washtenaw County (and Pollack Design) have been very open to outside input, and I believe the trail from Dexter to Dexter-Huron is positioned not only to optimize public access but will facilitate management needed for maintenance (e. g., prairie and savanna burns) and create a minimal footprint.  However, one new bridge seems necessary (at Dexter-Huron Metropark).

By contrast, the HCMA has resisted input, and they have continued to insist on placing a new bridge over the Huron along with a lengthy floodplain transit road in Hudson Mills Metropark within a natural rivers protected area, even though it is not needed.  In addition, the parts of the proposed trail that have been surveyed in Hudson Mills need to be better placed.

Unfortunately, it seems essential to discuss the details of our experiences here even though that may seem a bit harsh.

One of the most remarkable and disturbing aspects of the Hudson Mills bridge episode is the procedure by which the previous DNR director, K L Cool, was persuaded to override staff decisions to reject this bridge because it violates the Natural Rivers Protection Act.  Not only that but he facilitated a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grant to build this bridge, a flood plain transit road and accompanying upland trail.  Even after objections from local conservation groups, river user groups, local officials and Senator Liz Brater, the HCMA administration feels this is their land to do with as they chose and only they represent the public.
(Some have called this arrogance.)  They have tried to portray the Hudson Mills bridge and flood pain transit as necessary for the larger trail system, for public safety (the opposite may be true), for fishing access, etc., but these are simply not true.  In fact, it looks like they are actually not interested in the larger trail system but mainly in getting another loop trail among several already within Hudson Mills.  Those who have watched the HCMA carefully over the years will know there have been many past environmental transgressions, or attempts, but that is another story.

So, we urge that the HCMA abandon the bridge plans and put the money into completing the larger trail system; that will bring some exciting new outdoor recreation opportunities.

It is unfair to paint everyone with the same brush here.  The HCMA is basically a very good organization, but they have become isolated from the mainstream of thinking in their constituency (e.g., concerns about natural area preservation and interest in low impact, low cost recreation as opposed to high impact, high cost recreation).  Much of this thinking about land use and even recreation seems stuck in 1950s.  The taxpayers would be better served by substantial changes in the organization.  This process of change has begun in many areas, and they already have an outstanding interpretive service.

I hope others will "carry the ball" here as I am locked into being away through June 30.

Thanks, Larry Noodén