On a pleasantly warm and breezy evening in June, members of the Grand Traverse Hiking Club chapter of the North Country Trail Association (GTHC) joined members of the Northern Michigan Mountain Biking Association (NMMBA) to clean up a section of the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT) near the Dollar Lake trailhead just southeast of Traverse City. Following the work session, the volunteers gathered at a campsite for a potluck and conversation. Volunteers from both organizations were joined by Kenny Wawsczak, North Country Trail Association’s Regional Trail Coordinator for Michigan and Melissa Werkman, IMBA's Associate Region Director for Michigan. The conversation flowed easily with everyone having the opportunity to express concerns surrounding NCT trail access, sustainability, maintenance, areas that would benefit from potential rerouting and most notably, how the two organizations can collaborate when it comes to access and advocacy efforts.
This gathering was noteworthy because for years, while the two groups were cooperative, there existed a fair amount of user conflict on the sections of NCT trail running through the area—in particular, with regard to mountain bike events. The NMMBA’s Long & Short’s ride is one example that utilized portions of the NCT as part of the course. This year, Long & Short’s organizers reached out to the GTHC and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which manages the land in this area, to work out reroutes that would avoid sensitive areas, further assist with trail maintenance and discuss a post-event clean-up plan. Additionally, organizers invited GTHC members to participate in the event so that they could see first-hand what impact, if any, the organized ride had on the trail. Because of the level of cooperation and pre-event communication plus NCTA member participation, NMMBA and NCTA chapter leadership planned the joint trail clean-up and conversation to discuss other ways that the two user groups might work together in the future. Both groups recognize that while they have different interests and means by which they use the trail, a common and shared commitment to responsible trail stewardship, advocacy and preservation exists.
Michigan is unique in that of the 821 completed miles of the North Country Trail that run through it, roughly 341 are open to mountain biking. In June, the North Country Trail Association released an updated #308 Mountain Bike Policy, which clarified for NCT users and volunteers when mountain biking may be appropriate on the NCT. It states, in summary, that mountain bike use on a section of trail must be mutually agreed upon between the NCT chapter, partners and land managers, that it be sustainably constructed to support mountain bike use but still support an exceptional hiking experience, trails can be used safely by all user groups and that signage is present to support safe use, and that for those sections open to mountain biking, there is a partnership with the local IMBA chapter or other mountain biking organization that will help maintain, support and supervise joint trail use.
This policy provides official guidance to NCTA chapters based on the National Park Service’s “Foundation Document,” which sets forth policy on the “nature and purposes” of the NCT based on Congressional intent. The National Park Service is the designated administrator of the NCT. The NCTA Policy #308 offers a call to action to IMBA chapters to work together with NCTA to ensure that the rideable sections of the NCT are properly maintained so they can be enjoyed by both hikers and mountain bikers alike.
Bruce Matthews, Executive Director of the NCTA states, “Building and maintaining our 4600 miles of NCT—the longest National Scenic Trail in America, involves many partnerships and relationships trail-wide. The updated Policy #308 clarifies the circumstances when mountain biking could occur on the NCT, and invites the mountain biking community into a dialog as to how best to work together to make that happen. NCTA is not stepping back from its commitment to a world-class hiking experience trail-wide, but is seeking rather, as guided by National Park Service policy, to work with other user groups wherever appropriate to identify and define areas and ways the NCT could be shared.”
The June clean-up and meeting is one of many ways that IMBA chapters across the state of Michigan are working together with other user groups and stakeholders to sustain the beauty and character of the trails loved and utilized by many.