Volunteers pick up slack on grooming trails

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Capital News Service

LANSING- As its budget woes mount, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) and a major union have come to an agreement that allows volunteers to groom cross country ski trails that used to be tended by state employees.That arrangement with the Michigan State Employees Association allows volunteers to take over grooming responsibilities in some areas where state employees used to do the work.
In December, the DNRE announced that only eight state forest ski trails would be groomed, and mostly by volunteer organizations. Grooming involves removing debris, adding or removing snow and creating a level amount of snow, to improve skiing conditions.
Mary Dettloff, an information officer at the DNRE, said that there we was no other way to keep the trails clear.
“We just don’t have the money to pay for it. It’s a $266,000 expenditure every year to keep the trails groomed,” she said.
Under a previous agreement with the union, volunteers groomed only five trails.
Then when the DNRE announced that it could afford to groom only three of its most popular routes this season, those organizations offered to do more.
Under the new agreement volunteers and DNRE staff are looking after 13 of 23 state forest trails.
They are in Alpena, Cheboygan, Chippewa, Grand Traverse, Luce, Marquette, Ogemaw, Otsego, Presque Isle and Wexford Counties.
Vince Call, the president of the Thunder Bay Trails Association in Alpena, said that his group proposed taking up some of the slack. It was already grooming the Norway Ridge and Chippewa trails in Alpena County and a small portion of the Black Mountain recreation area in Presque Isle County.
“The DNRE had an employee that grooms most of Black Mountain and they had to pull him off because there was no money for it,” Call said. “We told them that we’ve already purchased equipment, we’re grooming seven miles of that trail and we’re more than willing to go ahead and groom the remainder of the trail.”
The annual Black Mountain Classic race attracts more than 170 participants in the first weekend in March, according to Call. For it to take place, the trail has to be groomed.
In the past, the Thunder Bay couldn’t do the grooming because the volunteers were prohibited from doing the work of state employees.
“They said there was no way the grooming was going to be done, so we took up the cause,” Call said.
Taking up the cause involved writing to legislators, conducting a phone and e-mail campaign and asking DNRE Director Rebecca Humphries to review the case.
“We told them that we have insurance, we’ve worked with them for a number of years and we wish to be able to continue to do so and continue grooming all of Black Mountain,” he said.
But Dettloff said affected state employees may feel left out by the new agreement.
“It’s a very delicate situation,” she said. “Many state employees are feeling under siege because of the budget situation. Any time that there’s a volunteer agreement involved, it’s tough.“We’re very sensitive to that, because we don’t want employees to think that we’re taking work away from them, but we simply didn’t have a way to pay for that work to be done,” she said.
Call said his group had no interest in getting in the middle of a dispute.
“We had hoped not to do this, and we hope that we can continue to have a positive working relationship with the DNRE,” he said. “We’re more than willing to work with them, and we do not want to get involved in the politics.”
The Michigan State Employees Association’s director of communications, Karen Murphy, declined to comment on the agreement.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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