MARQUETTE - With new connector routes in place and increased fees on the horizon, state officials are working with clubs and other partners to improve the off-road trail network across the Upper Peninsula.
Recently, the Michigan Department of Transportation approved a dozen ORV connector routes proposed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on behalf of rider clubs and local governmental units.
The routes allow riders in the MDOT rights of way, including along the shoulders of some state highways.
Michigan Trails and Recreation Alliance of Land and Environment president Don Helsel and trail manager Mike Schulz install continuing off-road vehicle right-of-way signs in Ontonagon County along M-28 in November. (MI-TRALE photo)
"There is a new law in effect that allows off-road vehicles to ride in certain highway right-of-ways," said Ron Yesney, a DNR recreation specialist in Marquette. "It's not a carte blanche opportunity for off-road vehicles to run down the side of U.S. 41 or M-28. What it is right now is it's a law that enables us, under certain circumstances and under certain situations, to open MDOT highways to off-road vehicle activity."
Yesney made the comments on a recent broadcast of "Ask the DNR" on WNMU-TV13.
All of the new connector routes are closed for the season until May 1. Eleven of the routes had been signed before the Dec. 1 closure, the final route will be ready by spring.
"They'll be maintained with off-road vehicle dollars and the key factor there is to help us to create a better connected ORV trail system," Yesney said.
State officials will follow up on the 12-route project to assess safety and environmental impacts, property owner issues and impacts to the rights of way and easements.
"It's important to note that this is just a pilot project so these are 12 kind of test sites that we've identified that make sense," said DNR spokeswoman Debbie Munson-Badini in Marquette. "But if some communities want to see more of these, what they need to do is have their local unit of government make a proposal to MDOT that they want to see a connector and then that could happen in the future. So this is just the beginning."
Requests will be reviewed by MDOT and DNR on a case-by-case basis, with safety and connectivity being primary factors evaluated during the approval process.
The first trail signs were put up in November by members of the Michigan Trails and Recreation Alliance of Land and Environment along a stretch of M-28 east of Bergland in Ontonagon County.
"It is many years of hard work by many people and organizations coming together, along with the full support of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Michigan Department of Transportation, to make this a reality," said MI-TRALE president Don Helsel in a news release. "We look forward to this being the beginning of greater accessibility, convenience and inter-connection of our trails for our riding guests. They will now have available to them the services offered in many more of our friendly and unique U.P. towns."
Rider rules for the ORV connector routes include a 25-mph speed limit, obeying the seasonal closure from Dec. 1 to May 1 and riding in single file only.
Yesney said ORV fees will increase next year.
"The off-road vehicle people are looking for an interconnected trail system very similar to what we have in the snowmobile world," Yesney said. "We could never do that. We never had the funding available with the $16.25 trail permit fee."
Some of the reasons for the increase include new land permits, funding for the new ORV connector routes for signs and maintaining the shoulders of right of ways.
"Folks that are going to be buying new ORV trail permits in the spring, that fee will be going up," Yesney said. "It's going to be going up to $26.50 if you just ride on county roads and other lands. If you use the state designated ORV trail system, it's an additional $10, so it will be $36 plus."
Yesney concedes the increase seems significant.
"That seems like a big jump," Yesney said. "But we really needed to do that to create the ORV trail system that is really being demanded by the users."
Yesney said to better serve ORV riders, the public, communities, businesses and economic development, an interconnected trail system is needed and "it's going to cost some money."
"The ORV sales in the state of Michigan have really skyrocketed in the last seven or eight years and we're behind in terms of what we needed to do to create a trail system that would play with that demand," Yesney said.
The trail system will take time to complete.
"I just ask ORV users to be patient with us, work with us, and we're working hard to develop something special," Yesney said. "A lot of ORV clubs, the Hiawathaland and U.P. ORV Trail Development Association, we're all working together with the DNR to create a better ORV trail system that interconnects, that gets you places and brings you to special places and in and out of communities and we're going to get there."
For more information about riding ORVs in Michigan, visit www.michigan.gov/orvtrails.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.