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New planning approach needed for Vasa Trail

Tue, Feb  3, 2015 - By Andrew White

Many more voices need to be heard on the future of the Vasa Pathway ski trails. Transparency is needed; so far, the discussion has been limited and mostly secret.

Winding through the Pere Marquette State Forest, the Vasa Pathway is considered one of the outstanding cross-country ski trails in the Midwest. The Vasa trail system was built by local skiers with support from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The Vasa is classified as a multi-use trail open to all. However, each winter, the DNR formally designates the Vasa a “State Forest Cross Country Ski Pathway” from Dec. 1 through April 15 and provides financial support for grooming. No one foresaw that one day hundreds of trail users would want to ride bicycles during the winter on a wide trail groomed for cross-country skiing.

The Vasa system is cared for primarily by a local non-profit, Traverse Area Recreational and Transportation Trails Inc. (TART). Last winter, with increased interest in “fat bikes” (bicycles with fat tires designed for riding on snow) TART encouraged cyclists to ride on the Vasa on Fridays. “Fat Bike Fridays” came as a surprise to skiers. There had been rumors, but no opportunities for public comment or involvement. Controversy and conflict ensued.

To its credit, last winter the DNR intervened. After soliciting trail user input, both written and at a public meeting, the DNR worked with a coalition of skiers and cyclists to develop a proposal for a new “single-track” multi-use trail. The new “Winter Sports Singletrack Trail” was approved and built in record time and has been a huge success.

Fat bikes on Vasa cross country ski trail

The DNR has written me that, “It is the intention of the local group of bikers/skiers that, while biking is not officially banned from the existing Vasa Pathway, the new trail will be so enjoyable by the biking community that they will not ride on the Vasa any longer.” There are signs that is taking place.

However, important decisions still need to be made about what our winter trails in the Vasa area will be. Do we want all non-motorized trails to be multi-use trails shared during the winter by skiers, cyclists, runners, and snowshoers? Or should our goal be a system of separate trails, designed for different user groups, like the Noquamenon Trail Network developing at Marquette? Could there be at least one dedicated trail for skate and classic style skiers similar to the cross-country ski trails the Grayling Recreation Authority maintains at Hanson Hills?

More importantly: How will these decisions be made?

TART’s leaders have never publicly met with skiers or asked for their input. Recent decisions about the Vasa trails have been made by small self-selected groups meetings behind closed doors. Average users have no voice.

The way the Vasa’s future is discussed and decided needs to change. Here’s hoping that, going forward, we can have a planning process that honors the community traditions of the Vasa by finally allowing everyone’s voice to be heard.

About the author: Andrew White is a member of the Vasa Ski Club, and an avid cyclist and cross-country skier. He works as a merchant marine officer on bulk carriers on the Great Lakes. This article first appeared in the Traverse City Record-Eagle Opinion Forum and is reprinted with permission of the author.