Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Battle of the VASA: Skiing or Fat Tire Biking?

During many of our TCYP meetings, we talk about taking an active role in our communities and participating in conversations about issues, ideas, or events that are important to us an individuals. As a group, we don't hone in everyone's personal political preferences, but we always advocate for being at the table and getting your voice heard, no matter what stance you take on an issue. 

I've made a strong effort to take this preaching and make it my practice. I keep my ears open for opportunities that would allow me to voice my concerns or praise on a certain topic, and I seek out chances to understand larger pieces of our community. Decisions are made every day that impact our town and region, and whether those decisions are made at a local, state, or national level, I am doing my best to make sure my opinion is expressed on issues I care about.

All that said...I've never attended a public meeting. Like, ever. That's pretty embarrassing at my age. So, I decided to do something about that, and earlier this week I attended my first-ever public meeting!

The issue discussed was the VASA trial, located just east of Traverse City near Acme. For 25 years, the VASA trail has been designated as a classic and skate-style cross-country ski course. It is nationally-renowned and one the most fantastic places to XC ski in all of Michigan. In fact, this trail alone (ranging from 5K to 25K distances) is one of the main reasons I found a whole new love and appreciation for winters up north; we visit it quite often when there's snow on the ground.

But, because it is such a fantastic trail (groomed regularly by diehard volunteers and the TART Trails, with some additional funding from the Michigan DNR), it was opened up to fat tire biking every Friday if conditions were right. This past winter was the first experimental year of allowing the fat tire bikes on the trailhead, and over the course of the season, concerns about allowing the fat tire bikers on the VASA emerged from skiers. 

So, the DNR hosted a public meeting this past Monday at the Civic Center, asking people to come and share their thoughts about allowing fat tire bikers on the trail in the winter. I went to the meeting, but I didn't speak out at all because, honestly, I don't have a strong opinion on the matter either way. I think fat tire bikes are awesome and I love XC-skiing, and while I would love to endorse a multi-use trail...the VASA is such a pristine course designed specifically for XC-skiing that it seems somehow sacrilegious to allow it for anything other than skiing when there's snow on the ground. Still, the fat tire biking community needs a place to explore and call their own (and it needs to be groomed), and it would be best if everyone could have the chance to do the sport they love regardless of what it is. Like I said, I'm pretty conflicted.

The DNR was looking for public comment on the issue, but they were also looking for solutions. During the course of two hours, people brought up a whole range of ideas: designating the trail as XC-ski only, allowing the bikers on the trail on a certain day or under certain weather restrictions, developing a new fat tire bike trail in the same area as the VASA, or somehow finding a way to allow the skiers and bikers to co-exist on the trail (though that wasn't a popular opinion). 

I was amazed to see the turnout for this meeting. There must've been close to 200 people at the meeting, and many were avid cross-country skiers and fat tire bikers; it was a very active and engaged group, to say the least! As the DNR meeting facilitator said, "I feel bad for the people sitting at home on their couches!" Folks came from Cadillac and even as far as Ann Arbor specifically to speak at this meeting and have their stance heard by the DNR. Talk about integrity!
Everyone was courteous, and they were certainly engaged. Many VASA founders were present--the folks who cut and hauled trees out and leveled the trail to make it a solid XC-ski course--as well as the president of the Michigan Mountain Biking Association. I was humbled by the emotion from both sides on this issue, and how each side respected the other during the course of the evening. 

The two things both sides agreed on were the willingness to help build a new fat tire bike trail in the same woods as the VASA and the necessity for the DNR to expedite a land use contract should a new trail for biking be determined a necessity. Mark Esper, the president of the North American Vasa ski race, and Glenn Ruczynski, past president of the Northern Michigan Mountain Biking Association, took the podium together and asked the DNR to approve the building of a new trail. With this collaborative announcement--they were part of a committee formed informally of both fat tire bikers and cross-country skiers to discuss solutions for both sides--the entire room erupted in applause and people gave a standing ovation that lasted nearly two minutes. There was great energy and support in the room for this committee, who took matters into their own hands, and the DNR agreed to work with the committee to find a solution that works for everyone.

All in all, I was so glad I went to the meeting and experienced the passion of all these people for an issue they care deeply about in our community. I left the meeting feeling both informed about an important decision in our community and also empowered as a citizen for exercising my right to participate in these conversations...even though, like I said, I didn't say anything. Making an appearance can be just as powerful, though, because my presence made it clear that this was something I care about and I want to be part of the solution, not someone who sits on the sidelines while decisions are made and I'm not paying attention. No doubt this is the first of many public meetings I'll attend!

I encourage you to keep your eyes and ears open for meetings and opportunities to take a stand on something you care about. It is always better to be heard than to shy away and miss the chance to make a difference in your city or community!

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