By ELIZABETH FERGUSON
LANSING — State officials are partnering with Michigan’s communities to create the Iron Belle trail, a 1,200-mile pathway starting in Detroit and ending in the western Upper Peninsula.
“We’ve found out trails invigorate communities, and it’s a place for people to go and visit, it’s good for local economies, it’s good for public health, so there’s a lot of benefits,” said Paul Yauk, the Department of Natural Resources Interim State Trails Coordinator.
The Iron Belle trail — first introduced by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2012 — is actually two trails. Both a 774 mile biking trail and a 1,200 mile hiking trail will start at Belle Isle Park in Detroit and end in Ironwood.
The DNR created a route based on existing trails in Michigan, Yauk said. About 65 percent of each trail is already in place.
The state’s resource agency and the Department of Transportation are helping communities get the funds and make plans to fill in the gaps.
The department plans to raise $270 million through private investments to help communities with trail-related costs, said Nancy Krupiarz, executive director of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance. She is one of three people contracted by the DNR to help plan trails.
She estimates communities will have to match 25 percent of funding provided by the state.
Besides fundraising, $250,000 of the state’s general fund will go toward these community trail projects, Yauk said.
Communities can also apply for competitive grants like the Federal Alternative Transportation program, which is administered by MDOT to local trail projects, said Josh DeBruyn, Department of Transportation’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.
The proposed route goes through public and private land. Seeking partnerships with private landowners is the longest part of trail planning, Yauk said.
Once land is secured, the state will be able to better estimate when the trail will be complete. It can then start to help communities fund and design trails to fill the gaps.
“I believe that trails bring people together, because what this trail requires is collaboration and community support,” said Barbara Kramer, a Dickinson County commissioner.
Kramer advocated that the DNR run the bike path along the southern coast of the Upper Peninsula. She gathered 70 letters of support from county commissions and city councils in the seven southern Upper Peninsula counties.
Extended road shoulders of US-2 will make up this portion of the trail, meaning a new trail will not have to be constructed. The area’s flatter land makes it suitable for biking, and the trail should attract bikers from out-of-state, Kramer said.
“We can get a lot of bikers in from Wisconsin if we have established trails here. Between Ironwood and Iron Mountain there is at least 18 access points,” Kramer said.
Crawford and Otsego county officials are planning a 40-mile portion of the trail running through North Higgins Lake, Hartwick Pines, and Otsego Lake state parks. Connecting the parks has been a goal of trail experts for 20 years, according to Wayne Koppa, a Crawford County Trails Committee member.
Koppa said the Crawford County trail committee has started talking with state officials to look into funding options before planning the trail design.
Local residents will gain a new path to walk or bike for exercise, leisure, or to get to work, Koppa said.
“There’s a whole lot of attractions in the area that visitors in the three parks now go to, but if the Iron Belle trail gets put into place, then a lot of those places, you’ll be able to reach either on bicycle or on foot,” Koppa said.
These three state parks total 400,000 visitors each year.
“People could come and spend an entire week in between those three state parks,” said Koppa, who predicts the trail will increase tourism.
Michigan’s trails provide local residents with a new option to get around town or venture to a nearby town, attract more tourists and connect Michigan’s peninsulas, said David Lorenz, marketing manager at Travel Michigan.
Mackinac Bridge Authority vehicles will take the trail’s pedestrians and bikers across the bridge.
“I’m hoping this trail will encourage people to cross that bridge in a new and different way and take that trail to experience each peninsula,” Lorenz said.