FERC approval allows Dragon Trail to move forward

BIG RAPIDS — Construction on the long-waited Dragon Trail, a hike and bike trail around Hardy Pond, may soon get underway.

Because the trail will be on the backwaters of the Hardy Dam, the project required the approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which has now been received.

Hardy Pond, created by the construction of the Hardy Dam, boasts over 50 miles of shoreline and over 4,000 acres of freshwater. The Dragon Trail will span over 47 miles along the banks of the pond where it winds through Mecosta and Newaygo counties and crosses the Hardy Dam.

Paul Griffith, a volunteer bike trail advocate, spoke to the Big Rapids City Commission during their meeting on Tuesday about the progress of the Dragon Trail and other trails in the area.

The Dragon Trail project has been under development for seven years, during which time economic, environmental, and emergency plans have been taking place, while waiting on the FERC approval.

An economic impact study conducted by Michigan State University reveals that the region can expect an annual increase in economic activity of more than $4.15 million per year, as well as an annual increase of nearly 105,000 visitors, and the creation of 70 new jobs.

Enviromental studies revealed the existence of a butterfly habitat in the area which led to the relocation of part of the trail to protect the habitat, Griffith said.

He also told the board that fire and police departments from the two counties and three townships involved in the trail project have been active in examining emergency rescue procedures and safety concerns around the trail.

“There will be some steep embankments, and rescue will have to be from the water,” Griffith said. “So it’s important to get everyone involved in the safety aspects.”

Because the land on which the trail will be constructed is owned by Consumers Energy, all the information had to be submitted to them for approval, as well as getting approval from FERC, he said.

Now that they have the approvals, they hope to get started this year completing an 8-mile-long section in Newaygo County and some in Mecosta County, with the plan of having the project finished by summer of 2021.

The trail, when complete, will consist of a 47-mile loop, 2 to 3 feet wide, made completely of dirt. Motorized vehicles will not be allowed. Hikers and bikers will have views of the water on 80 percent of the trail which will include three suspension bridges and 13 overlook areas, all on undeveloped land with easy access from several locations.

Bridges will link several existing township, county and private campgrounds to the trail, and access will be available from other sites along the trail within Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

The Big Rapids community is expected to benefit economically from the trail because of the close proximity to it.

“It will be just nine miles from the trail with 500 hotel rooms and 36 restaurants to offer bikers,” Griffith said.

Most other communities close to the trail have fewer accommodations available, and larger cities like Grand Rapids will be less convenient to the trail, he added.

The northeast corner of the trail will be west of the River Ridge Resort on 8 Mile Road and the trail will be within four miles of Brower Park, and within four miles of the White Pine Trail.

The White Pine Trail is one of 12 west Michigan trails that bear Fred Meijer’s name. The trail is 92 miles long with 62 miles currently paved.

In December 2018, $3 million was appropriated by the Michigan Legislature toward the paving of the remaining 30 miles.

Construction and repairs are currently being made to culverts and bridges along the trail, which must be completed before paving can be done, Griffith told the board.

“We hope that engineering can be completed this year; culverts and bridge repairs next summer, and paving completed in 2021,” he said.

Mecosta, Mason, Lake, Newaygo, and Mason counties are working together to promote trails on a broader scale throughout the state as well looking for ways to connect the many trails within the counties.

The Morton Township Recreation Committee is currently working on plans to develop two trails that connect with the White Pine Trails — one to Big Rapids and one to Stanwood — each around 13 miles in length. When completed, they will form a 33-mile loop between the village of Mecosta, Big Rapids, Stanwood and back.

In addition, Griffith said, the statewide organization, Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance is in the process of creating trails called the Great Lake to Lake Trail. Each route will go from one Great Lake to a second Great Lake. Route 1 from Port Huron to South Haven, a 275-mile trail, will have its inaugural ride in September. Route 2, from Muskegon to Bay City, is under development with only a few miles yet to be constructed.

“Big Rapids is fortunate to be along Route 2,” Griffith said. “That will be another great economic impact when they start promoting them.”

According to Connie Koepke, Mecosta County Convention and Visitors Bureau Director, in Michigan, $26.6 billion of consumer spending occurs with outdoor recreation travelers. Koepke said the CVB is working hard to capture more of this market for Mecosta County through marketing of the many trails in the area.

Efforts are being made to promote the trails state-wide, and CVB is working to get them certified as Pure Michigan trails, Koepke said. Completion of the Dragon Trail offers additional opportunities to boost the market in the area, she added.

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