Michigan’s Trails Improve Our Health

State Politicians Got It Right

Michigan’s Trails Improve Our Health

Michigan is known for its natural beauty and opportunities for outdoor recreation. The Great Lakes State has more trails than any other in the nation as well as the largest rail-trail system. More than 2,600 miles of old railroad lines have been converted for recreational use.

You can hike, bike, ride or ski on trails from one Great Lake to the next, with a constant companion of scenic landscapes. Michigan boasts 1,150 miles of the federally-designated North Country National Scenic Trail, more than any other state. Paddlers can enjoy over 3,000 miles of water trails along Michigan’s Great Lakes, inland lakes and rivers. 

Thousands of miles of ORV, equestrian, snowmobile and mountain bike trails provide the opportunity for all trail users to have a Pure Michigan® experience while enjoying their outdoor passion. With over 13,000 miles of state-designated trails and pathways, it’s likely there is a trail near you. 

Better yet, that trail is likely to be free and accessible to all, thanks oftentimes to the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (the Fund). The Fund exists to provide a permanent funding source for the public acquisition of land for natural resource protection and outdoor recreation. The Fund receives its monies from the sale or lease of state-owned oil, gas and mineral rights — a fitting way to invest in our non-renewable land resources.

To date, the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund has provided nearly $1.2 billion in funding for parks, trails, greenspaces and public recreation facilities in every one of Michigan’s 83 counties. Over 1,000 parks have been acquired or developed with monies from The Fund, and more than $245 million has been invested in trails. 

Those trails link our special places while connecting people and communities. Trails help preserve green space and improve our quality of life. In cases like the Clinton River Trail in Oakland County, trails can also be a crucial element in an urban, multimodal transportation system. 

The Clinton River Trail is a key 16-mile trail designed to link the communities of Sylvan Lake, Pontiac, Auburn Hills, Rochester Hills and Rochester. It provides safe and healthy transportation corridors to Oakland Community College, Oakland University and Rochester University. The trail is owned and managed by the five cities, who have acquired over $4.7 million from the Trust Fund for trail acquisition and development since 2001.

As the principal planner at Oakland County, Kristen Wiltfang relies on the support of a dedicated Friends Group to help manage the trail. “I’m so thankful for the Friends of the Clinton River Trail, a passionate group of very talented individuals who celebrated their 15th-anniversary last year,” Wiltfang said. She has worked with the Friends Group to improve wayfinding for the trail and increase access and participate in the annual Pontiac Fit Fest, which provides free helmets, bike locks, and fitness demonstrations.

Linda Gamage, member of the Friends of the Clinton River Trail, and a Paint Creek Trailways Commissioner, is an avid kayaker who loves both the Clinton River land and water trail. Gamage cautions the Clinton River is not for beginners, but is very popular, hosting an annual Paddlepalooza race in its 11th year.

Gamage grew up in Rochester walking the old railroad bed to the cider mills in the summer. “I stayed here because of the trail after getting married,” Gamage explained. “After having kids, it was a blessing to take them to the library without crossing a single road. As adults, my children used the trail for running and biking, and to visit friends. The Clinton River Trail is a great resource.” 

Fred Phillips, Vice President of the Friends Group, couldn’t agree more. Phillips explained there is quite a diversity of individuals in the five communities linked through the trail. “Toward the eastern end, in Rochester and Rochester Hills, those are communities with a fairly high percentage of young professionals, as well as European transplants due to the auto companies.”

“Here temporarily or for longer-term transfers from Europe, they expect to have trails available. They like to walk and bike and really rely on the Clinton River Trail and its connections with several other regional trails. It’s their playground in effect,” Phillips explained. That playground includes links to the Paint Creek Trail and surrounding communities of Oakland Township, Orion Township and the Village of Lake Orion.

The Clinton River Trail also connects to the West Bloomfield Trail and Macomb Orchard Trail, which are all a part of 19 connected trails that form the Great Lake-to-Lake Trails Route #1. This new destination trail travels 275 miles all the way from South Haven on Lake Michigan to Port Huron on Lake Huron. 

While these connections are fabulous, Phillips cautions there is still trail work to be done in Pontiac, and funding for trail maintenance is an on-going problem. Phillips explained the trail connection to Pontiac is not clean, using sidewalks and bypassing the downtown area. “This is where we would like to get more focus on health, and so the Friends Group has partnered with Healthy Pontiac, We Can! who works to improve the health of the citizens of Pontiac through several programs. 

Phillips favorite health program is one in which all Pontiac students with perfect attendance in elementary or middle school get a free bike. “The program focuses on health and fitness, promoting kids who are motivated, and trying to encourage healthy and active lifestyles, using the Clinton River Trail as a great place for recreation.”

Providing green spaces for all to recreate is exactly what the founders of the Trust Fund had in mind, and outdoor recreation on trails is leading to healthier communities. Researchers at the Rails to Trails Conservancy have found that safe and accessible trails and greenways make it easier for people to engage in physical activity. The organization is fighting what they feel is an emerging health crisis: physical inactivity.   

The National Center for Health Statistics reports the age-adjusted prevalence of obesity in adults is 42.4%, with no significant differences between men and women. From 1999-2000 through 2017-2018, the age-adjusted prevalence of obesity increased from 30.5% to 42.4% in the U.S. The CDC reports Michigan’s current age-adjusted rate of obesity is 30-35%. 

Dr. Torsha Bhattacharya, Director of Research at the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, explains the statistics are age-adjusted because we know young people are less obese, and the older you are the more likely you are to be obese. “So we can’t compare Florida to California, with so many seniors living in Florida, we would get an incorrect picture and need an apples to apples comparison,” Bhattacharya clarified. Our Department of Health and Human Services reports Michigan is consistently ranked among the top 10-15 most obese states in the U.S., and that three out of every ten adults are obese.

“We know obesity is associated with serious health risks,” said Dr. Bhattacharya, “and that physical inactivity is a leading cause of obesity. I am happy the CDC recently changed their guidelines, removing the 30 minutes a day recommendation. Now any amount of physical activity is good for you, as long as it is at least 10 minutes in length.” 

Bhattacharya is thrilled new longitudinal studies over years show a direct correlation between physical activity and disease prevention. “Research shows that increased physical activity can prevent diseases like colon cancer and renal cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Additional research also shows the mental health benefits of active transportation,” she pointed out. 

Active transportation is any human-powered mode of transportation, such as walking, hiking, biking, or skiing on a trail instead of driving in your car. “We know physical activity immediately affects the physical well-being, and now we know the resulting positive feeling stays with you over 3-4 days of tracking,” Bhattacharya shared. “A lot of time physical activity is almost equivalent or better than medication.”

“Trails are almost too good to be true,” Bhattacharya continued. “Trails are free, anybody can engage in them at any time, and the mental and health benefits blow my mind. When people are physically active, their productivity increases and people are less sick.”

“When you think of cost savings, development of trails is a direct cost savings, and employees benefit too,” added Bhattacharya. “Trails are a health cost savings from the individual to the national level.”

One of Michigan’s most popular trail networks, the Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails or TART Trails, recently commissioned a study on the health, economic and visitor use benefits of two trails in their 100-mile trail system — the Leelanau and Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. “We wanted to document what we’ve been hearing from the community with real data,” explained Julie Clark, Executive Director of TART Trails. “Studies like this help us better tell the story of community benefits and document impact with actual numbers.”

The study indicated 36% of Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail users are 60-69 years old, as are 30% of Leelanau Trail users. Users on both trails responded they use the trail to exercise, be healthier and enjoy scenery. The community, including health care professionals and businesses, agreed both trails reduce health care costs of the region and improve the physical and mental health of citizens. 

The University of Florida study concludes the potential for partnership discussed by health professionals throughout the survey “can provide an alley way into promoting trail use to those patient populations who are not already incorporating trail activities into their lives. Health participants are encouraged that connecting their patients with the trail system can increase health benefits to the community.”

Clark indicated TART trails has a long history of partnership with Munson Health Care, their regional hospital system. “We hope to continue to see that evolve, she emphasized. “Our insurance providers like Blue Cross Blue Shield Blue Care Network also play an important role in supporting a growing trail network. We work closely with different physician groups and programs like Smart Commute help support healthy lifestyles.”

It seems as if those efforts are already paying off. The Leelanau Trail attracts 100,000 annually and health professionals in the study agreed “TART Trails are key in providing preventative health care benefits to users of the trails.”

Businesses like the Crystal Rivers Outfitters Recreational District have seen a boost in sales from the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail too. The Outfitter offers canoe and kayak rentals, river trips, shopping and wine tasting. “When it first opened, the most exciting thing to see was individuals that had not used their bikes in years, bring in their old bikes to get tuned up so they could start riding again!” exclaimed Katy Wiesen, owner of Crystal Rivers Outfitters.

Wiesen felt there was a resurgence in people wanting to get out and bike again because they felt more comfortable on the trail versus the road.  “Due to the trail’s popularity, we now have an expanded season in that we see more people coming up to bike in the fall,” Wiesen added.  “Additionally, we have brought in fat bikes for winter riding.”

Fat tire biking is very popular on the trail network, especially on the new Vasa Pathway maintained and groomed by TART Trails on state forest land. The series of 3K, 5K, 10K and 25K loops is visited more than 55,000 times a year by cross-country skiers, mountain bikers, runners and hikers. The Vasa Pathway is another gem in our vast trail network developed with $95,000 of Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund monies.  

“Trails benefit those who use them by improving mental and physical health – enhancing overall quality life,” reiterated Julie Clark. “Even those who do not use the trails gain through economic, environmental, and public health benefits that they provide.”

That’s why TART Trails is expanding their trail network to connect to the Little Traverse Wheelway, complete three new connector trails and expand the Boardman River Trail. And yes, they’ll be applying for Trust Fund grants for those trail projects.

In times like this, it’s heart-warming to know Michigan and its past political leaders got something right. They created the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund and used it to help build a statewide network of trails that improves the health and quality of life of all Michiganders. The legacy of the Fund will live beyond its founders, and future generations will reap the benefits of this everlasting investment in our public lands, waters and trails.

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