GLEN ARBOR — The first five miles of Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail officially opens Wednesday, but area residents haven't universally embraced the multi-purpose path that's expected to be a hit with many outdoor enthusiasts.
Two groups and a lone, adamant protester oppose construction of the mostly asphalt trail that eventually will wind through 27 miles of the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore from Empire to Good Harbor.
"It seems like it's now become only a road bike trail built for speed," trail opponent Nancy Janulis said. "If you want a paved surface, head for a city park. This is not a National Park Service mission."
Janulis and others contend two-foot-wide shoulders on either side of the 10-foot-wide trail destroy the park's natural character.
They question the placement of a future section of trail parallel to Little Traverse Highway.
And some ask whether aspects of trail construction violate the National Park Services' mission to preserve and protect natural environments and features.
To that, Tom Ulrich, the Lakeshore's deputy superintendent, said flatly: "No, it doesn't."
More park access to more people
The heritage trail, when finished, will provide more park access to more people, Ulrich said.
It's designed to offer a safe route through the park for parents with strollers, biking families with children, people with disabilities, hikers, walkers, roller skaters and skate boarders, as well as bicyclists.
The first section connects the Dune Climb, Glen Haven, D.H. Day Camp, Alligator Hill and Glen Arbor.
The remaining 22 miles are scheduled to be built over the next two to three years.
Trail supporters — bicycling groups, local governments, area businesses, chambers of commerce and others — are jubilant about the grand opening.
The five-mile stretch is the Lakeshore's first multi-use, non-motorized, wheelchair-accessible trail.
Until now, cyclists have had to ride along the shoulders of M-22, M-109, M-204 and other existing roads in the 71,000-acre park.
But the Little Traverse Bay Property Owners Association, and Sleeping Bear Naturally, a group of mostly Sleeping Bear Bay residents, voice concerns about trail plans.
Little Traverse group members contend a section of trail that would run parallel to Little Traverse Lake Road doesn't make sense.
It would require removing hundreds of trees and cutting 22-feet into a 50-foot designated critical dune to make room for a 10-foot-wide trail with two-foot shoulders and heavy equipment to build it, association president Bill Irwin said.
The association hired a land use consultant to draw up an alternate "Along The Shore" route along 3.7 miles of Lake Michigan coastline between Bohemian/Lake Michigan Road and Good Harbor — a designated wilderness management area.
'No significant impact'?
Consultants Mansfield & Associates, a Traverse City engineering and surveying firm, also analyzed and critiqued a 2009 environmental assessment and its "finding of no significant impact."
That impact study was completed by another Traverse City engineering firm, Gosling & Czubak, with the help of park staff.
Their study resulted in approval of the conceptual trail plan by park Superintendent Dusty Schulz and Acting Midwest Regional Director David Given.
Consultants hired by the Little Traverse group said the initial survey did not adequately identify or assess the trail's impact on Traverse Lake Road's natural beauty, wetlands, forests, critical dunes, wildlife and residents, as well as its overall cost.
The group last month gave copies of the review, alternate route proposal and a petition signed by over 200 citizens who opposed the parallel route to park officials, the Leelanau Scenic Heritage Route Committee, Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, the Leelanau County Road Commission, TART Trails and Cleveland Township officials.
Sleeping Bear Naturally is comprised of a group of mostly Sleeping Bear Bay residents who hired an attorney and are forming a limited liability corporation.
Group members are considering a lawsuit to challenge the environmental survey's "finding of no significant impact," said Marilyn Miller, who questioned the plan since reading the survey in 2009.
The group contends the pro-trail decision was flawed because the original plan for the just completed segment called for crushed limestone surface in and around Glen Haven, as well as on an old, narrow gauge railroad bed in D.H. Day State Park.
Plans were changed in favor of asphalt surfaces without public input after the survey was approved, they said.
Ulrich said public comment wasn't required for that change. Crushed limestone and asphalt have similar environmental impacts, he said.
But Miller's group opposes a paved bike trail in the park. The survey also never mentioned occasional 20- to 30-foot-wide clear cuts of forest needed to make way for the trail and heavy equipment, she said.
"Bike trails don't have to be speedways," she said. "Crushed rock slows them down."
Glen Arbor resident Chris Crowther isn't aligned with either group but this spring obtained three, two-week permits to demonstrate against the heritage trail.
He worries the park will become over-developed and wildlife disrupted by construction and expected increased tourism because the Lakeshore won an online "Most Beautiful Place in the World" contest in 2011.
Crowther's third permit, signed by Schulz, is for June 20 through July 4.
He will spend the first day at the Dune Climb grand opening.