BELDING — As Lowell resident Ted Bentley bundles up in his winter jacket, slips on his gloves and straps on his camping backpack, the avid cyclist knows exactly what he wants when he heads out for an evening journey.
Guided by the moon and the stars, Bentley travels through deeply wooded areas, trudging through the snow on his bike with thick 4-inch tires, leaving behind a single bike trail as he plows through the fresh snow ahead of him.
He’ll stop to camp for a moment, melting snow with his small, “cat can” stove to make hot chocolate, and take in the beauty that rustic, wooded areas in northern Michigan tend to offer.
But Bentley isn’t riding through northern Michigan, he’s actually stopped in the middle of the River Valley Rail Trail system just south of Belding in Smyrna, enjoying the scenery that is offered in Montcalm and Ionia counties.
For that reason, Bentley was one of dozens of people who attended a meeting Monday evening at the Pere Marquette Depot in Belding, seeking more information about the future of the local trail systems, specifically those stretching from Owosso to Lowell and up to Greenville, with a chance to provide information of their own.
“There are a few things that I would personally like to see added to these trails for the type of outdoor world that I feel Michigan doesn’t have enough of,” Bentley said. “I just feel that there’s a chance that this system of trails is growing and becoming bigger, and I want this to happen.”
Representative such as Barbara Nelson-Jameson, the Michigan Program director from the National Park Service, were on hand to hear ideas as renewed focus is placed on finishing the rail-to-trail system south of Greenville.
“The whole state right now is talking ‘trail towns,’ and you have such beautiful towns here,” she said. “It’s about getting people from the trail into your town and making sure that they have information and know what assets are in your town.”
Nelson-Jameson described the future trails as new “gateways into the community,” offering another way for visitors from Lansing, Grand Rapids, and across the state and Midwest, to travel through local communities they would otherwise not have a reason to visit.
Nelson-Jameson and Jim Radabaugh, State Trails coordinator with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), presented the introduction of a plan for the trails stretching from Greenville to Owosso, now known as “Project GO.”
“This planning effort has taken on a life of its own since 2007,” Radabaugh said.
According to Radabaugh, the projects started with the state acquisition of the Owosso to Ionia stretch of trail, known as the Clinton Ionia Shiawasee (CIS) Trail.
“When the state came into the picture, the members of the friends groups had already been meeting for years,” he said. “Because of all of this history and interest associated with the trail, we needed a third party. That’s when we contacted the National Parks Service.”
Soon after, additional corridors, from Ionia to Lowell, Lowell to Belding, and Belding to Greenville, were eventually purchased and donated.
After obtaining additional corridors, the scope of the project was expanded from Owosso to Greenville, and now organizers are looking for additional input and assistance.
“The partnership of this whole network has been critical, in terms of having everyone involved,” Radabaugh said.
That partnership includes more than seven groups, including various rail-trail “friends” groups, the DNR, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and Fred Meijer Foundation.
According to Nelson-Jamison, organizers are focusing on making the trail a unique experience for a variety of different visitors.
“What kind of recreational use and visitor experience do we want to provide on the trail?” she asked Monday evening. “Those are the kinds of questions we need input from you about.
Everyone in attendance was handed a survey with four questions seeking input about the trail, and organizers will continue to listen to those who want to contribute as the process to complete the trails continues to move forward.
Nelson-Jamison listed five goals for the rail-to-trail system, including becoming a part of the larger mid-Michigan trail system; be a place for safe, healthy, non-motorized transportation; develop a river component to the trails, allowing canoing and kayaking; implement educational components to the trails; and to be of such quality, that visitors from throughout the Midwest will come to experience the trails.
“It’s going to be a high-quality rail-trail network,” she said.
The trails are split into three separate zones, Town and Village, Rural and Natural, throughout what will eventually be a 125-mile-long stretch.
Town and village zones range from one mile to four miles in length and provide an area where people can walk, rollerblade or bike along a well defined and signal trail. Trail design usually includes asphalt surface and trailhead facilities, parking and picnic areas.
Rural zones are stretches between town and village zones that go travel through agricultural and low residential areas. They begin as limestone, but have the option to be paved with asphalt, a more expensive option, in the future.
Natural zones are in areas where the trail follows closely to the rivers and through state game and recreation areas. There could be fragile resources or endangered species, such as the Karner Blue Butterfly in the Ionia State Game area. Trails in natural zone areas would not be plowed in the wintertime, however, that could open up winter recreational activities such as cross-country skiing.
“Three different zones will offer different types of experiences, so it won’t be one long boring rail-trail,” Nelson-Jamison said. “It will have some diversity, which will help make traveling the trail a world-class experience.”
The total developmental budget of the Owosso to Greenville corridors is $12,500,000, with $8,685,000 already having been funded through grants, donations and fundraising over the years.
For more information and ways to contribute to the local rail-trail systems, visit www.rivervalleyrailtrails.org online.