What is Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail?

What is Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail? We’ve been asked this more times than we can count and we’ve wondered ourselves.

More than two years ago, the Detroit Free Press ran an article about Governor Snyder’s idea for a “showcase” trail, connecting Belle Isle to Ironwood, and declaring Michigan “THE Trails State”. The map accompanying that article showed the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCNST) as the route across the UP. To say it took us by surprise is an understatement!

Since then, we’ve been in discussion with the DNR (the lead agency for implementing this idea) about if and how the North Country National Scenic Trail fits in with the Governor’s vision. Initial fears about the trail being motorized were quickly nixed, and the idea soon emerged that two separate trails were needed, one for biking and one for hiking, and that each route would weave together existing trails with new in order to bring the vision to reality.

This last week, the name of this new trail was formally announced by the DNR as Michigan’s Iron Belle (click here to read the press release). And again there has been a flurry of discussion. What does this mean for the North Country National Scenic Trail and for those who use it, build it and love it? Yesterday, we sat down with Paul Yauk, the acting State Trail Coordinator for the DNR, to discuss some of the details and we wanted to share some of our main points of discussion with you.

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Where will the Iron Belle Trail overlap with the North Country National Scenic Trail?

The Iron Belle Trail will join the NCNST in Calhoun County and follow the route into Gogebic County on the Wisconsin border where we head west and the Iron Belle will head down to Ironwood. Explore the map

How will we sign the Trail?

The Iron Belle Trail will have its own logo and associated brand standards. The National Park Service, NCTA and our partners will draft our own guidelines for if, when and how it will be used on the NCT. If we have opportunities to include the name and/or logo on trail signage, access points, kiosks or in our materials, it would be welcome but not mandated and the DNR will provide the materials. The Iron Belle logo will not replace the NCNST emblem and blue blazes.

Is the “hiking” section really hiking only?

Although one route on the Iron Belle is being designated for hiking and one for biking, that does not trump any use designated by the local land manager. Those sections of the NCNST open to mountain bikes or on multi-use paths will remain so, just as you will be able to take a walk on the rail trails that are part of the designated bike route. Those two distinctions simply mean you will be able to walk the entire length of one and bike the entire length of the other.

Who will develop the trail in the gaps we have yet to build?

Planning, land acquisition, trail building and maintenance will still be under the leadership of the National Park Service, the North Country Trail Association and the land management agency or managing partner in charge of any given section. The DNR has made it clear that they are here to help where needed but will look to us to lead.  We’re seeing this as a great opportunity as the DNR ramps up its trail acquisition capacity to play a much greater role in funding trail protection on the NCNST. For this to work, it must be managed in partnership—something that continues to evolve.

How will it be funded?

Some new funding will be available for small grants through the DNR for projects that are part of the Iron Belle Trail. Combine this with existing grant programs like the Natural Resources Trust Fund, National Park Service and NCTA funding, plus partnerships with land conservancies and other conservation organizations, and the potential for further progress on the NCNST just continues to grow.

How will we promote the Iron Belle Trail?

The North Country National Scenic Trail will remain the North Country National Scenic Trail but we are proud to be recognized by the State of Michigan as part of the Iron Belle Trail. The DNR will point people to NCTA and our website for more information. They already have us listed on their website and they will continue to connect the public with us for maps, trail information and local contacts. Check out our new online map and data center.

We’ve been invited to join the DNR’s marketing team in discussion about further promotion and are helping them draft language for marketing materials. We also have some ideas to work together to celebrate the  100th birthday of the National Park Service and the 100th birthday of Michigan State Parks, both in 2016. What a party that will be.

This effort is not about one trail, or two, or even the dozens of existing trails, like the NCNST, that will make up the Iron Belle. It’s a national, state and local collaboration to showcase Michigan’s incredible natural beauty and vibrant communities. We’re excited to join the collaboration.

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