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Closing the loop

Anne Stanton - December 7th, 2006
Get ready, set, rev ... or maybe do a slow boil of disappointment. It all depends on who you are.
Thanks to a decision to open a 12-mile railroad grade along Mullet Lake, snowmobile enthusiasts can now make a complete loop around Northern Michigan. The trail connects snowmobile trails in Indian River and Cheboygan. With the gap closed, the snow machines can tour from Indian River north to Mackinac City, south to Alanson, and then back to Indian River, said Mike Grisdale, executive director of the Cheboygan Area Chamber of Commerce.
“We’ve been hoping and working for this for quite awhile. Winter stuff is hard to come by—we don’t have a ski resort or a casino. So snowmobiling is the one thing Cheboygan can offer in the winter. The city council is even opening up the downtown streets to snowmobilers this year. We’re hoping to promote the entire region as a snowmobile destination,” Grisdale said.
Meanwhile, landowners along Mullet Lake are nursing a deep disappointment over the state’s decision to allow snow machines on a railroad grade that abuts their lakeside yards and goes through scores of driveways. The state bought the railroad grade in 1988 with Michigan Natural Resource Trust Fund dollars. At that time, it promised that it would forever keep motorized vehicles off West Mullet Lake Trail.
Without a trail connection, some snowmobilers drove on the unplowed shoulder of M-27. Others even tried to make it across the lake.
“We had several snowmobiles try that, and then they’d fall into the lake and we’d have to rescue them,” said Cheboygan Undersheriff Mike Newman.
The state finally agreed in the mid 1990s to find an alternate route or rescind the snowmobile ban. The pressure to compromise was intense. There are 380,000 registered snowmobile riders who spend an estimated $1 billion on meals, drinks, clothing and equipment related to the sport. On the other side were about 300 Mullet Lake residents; some who own cottages while others own $2 million homes and often don’t stick around for the winter weather.
There have been reports that Mullet Lake landowners had blocked the trail with boats and docks—essentially using the railroad grade as private property.
Officials from the state Department of Natural Resources recently met with landowners to make sure the trail was clear.
“We actually have quite a few things that we consider potential liabilities to individuals, and we’re working with residents to get them out of the way by December 1st, assuming we have snow,” said Lori Underwood, a DNR land use specialist. “In particular, we’ve had a few handrails on stairways that walk down to the water. Decks, actual decks where folks had chairs sitting on the trail, railroad ties, landscaping. There are a couple of places where people had boulders that extended on the traversable portion of the trail. Pretty big variety of things that would be a danger to snowmobile users or the groomer that’s going to go through there.”
The DNR just moved a propane tank last week that was within seven feet of the trail’s center,” said Ken Phillips, a DNR forester in Indian River. “Actually people have been quite cooperative.”
No one has been so irate with the situation that they’ve purposely put an obstacle on the trail, as was the case several years ago when one resident dug a shallow trench across the Leelanau Trail from Traverse City to Suttons Bay, causing a cyclist to crash and break a wrist. “Obviously there are serious waterfront property rights concerns, but they don’t want anyone hurt either,” Underwood said.

Gray Fischer has led the opposition to snow machines. Not only are residents hurt by the decision—cross country skiers and hikers won’t be able to use the trail. “Now it will be a snowmobile highway, “ he said.
Before the state bought the railroad bed, trains ran back and forth on the tracks, hauling supplies for Proctor and Gamble. “When they originally put in the railroad grade many, many years ago, homes on the lake weren’t an issue,” said Cheboygan County Undersheriff Michael Newman.
“Now you’ve got a narrow band of area between the lake and homes, and some of those houses are very close to the railroad grade. You might have a lot 100 feet deep and it butts right against the trail,” he said.
Over the last few years, leaders from the different sides met with the state Department of Natural Resources and tried to come up with alternate plans. One would have allowed snowmobiles on two miles of an existing two track in Pigeon River Country State Forest. But the DNR vowed to never allow snowmobiles because it would disturb wildlife. There was another plan for a 30-mile trail that would have involved building snowmobile bridges over I-75 and the Pigeon River—an expensive proposition, but one which the Michigan Snowmobile Association said it was willing to help fund, Fischer said.
Ann Wilson, the DNR’s spokeswoman, said more than 30 options were examined, and all thrown out for different reasons. Private property owners, for example, weren’t willing to grant an easement for a bridge over I-75 on either side of the bridge.
“When we were adding up all the obstacles it would have been very difficult,” she said.
State Senator Jason Allen and State Rep. Kevin Elsenheimer pressured Gov. Granholm last spring to agree to allow snowmobiles on the trail. She did, and so did the DNR director. Newman said he believes the Mullet Lake trail is the only one in the state with restrictions: snow machines can drive no faster than 35 mph and must stay off the trail between midnight and 8 a.m. Fischer said that the state’s betrayal should put citizens on notice that the state cannot be trusted to follow through on its promises.
“We spent two years of meetings with the snowmobile clubs, the DNR and a lot of people who thought they were working in good faith. And then bingo. It was over in just a heart beat last spring,” Fischer said.
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
“It doesn’t make me wonder,” Fischer said. “It makes me understand. This was an election year.”

Sugar Loaf
sits out the season
Snowboarders and skiers will have to wait at least another year for Sugar Loaf ski resort to re-open in Leelanau County.
There were just too many hurdles, including a dispute over a sewer bill.
Sugar Loaf was closed in 2000, so there’s been a lot of buzz over the prospect of the resort opening again, albeit with just one chair lift.
But Joe Quandt, the attorney for owner Kate Wickstrom, said it just didn’t make sense to rush the opening. The state has recertified one of the ski lifts and snowmaking equipment, but Quandt said the owner wants the resort fully operational.
Kate Wickstrom, the new owner, is in the process of finalizing a tentative agreement with the Sugar Loaf Service Company over the sewage treatment system. The two parties disagreed about how much Wickstrom should pay for sewer service soon after she took ownership in March of 2005. The Service Company wanted her to pay $8,000 a month—the historical amount—but she thought the bill was over the top for a nonfunctioning resort. The two sides have since reached a tentative agreement, Quandt said.
In the meantime, Quandt wants to dispel the notion that Sugar Loaf will be devoted solely to snowboarding when it reopens.
“It will have a state-of-the-art snowboard park, but there will be traditional skiing with the component of snowboarding.”

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