Saturday, September 29, 2012

Trail Users And Their Many Trail Uses

By Drew Hanson

Here we go again.

A group of people want to add a more dominant use to a segment of the Ice Age Trail. It’s a story that replays every so often. This time it’s some good folks who want to bring along their ATVs on the Gandy Dancer Segment of the Ice Age Trail. The problem isn’t the extra people wanting to use part of the Ice Age Trail, it’s that they want to bring along a use (in this case their ATVs) that will adversely impact others.

What follows is an updated version of a letter I wrote in 2004 to support establishing the Ice Age Trail as a footpath primarily for pedestrian use—the most common denominator of all trail uses.

The Ice Age Trail is a popular conservation, recreation, education, economic and public health facility. To maintain these qualities, the Ice Age Trail needs to remain primarily a foot trail. A Gaylord Nelson statement comes to mind, "Hiking trails provide the entire American family with perhaps the most economical, most varied form of outdoor recreation."

Thousands of volunteers commit tens of thousands of hours of their time to its care and development every year. An editorial in the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter on January 26, 2004 stated “When completed, the Ice Age Trail will inject millions of dollars annually into Wisconsin’s tourism trade.” Public support for the Ice Age Trail and public interest and awareness of the health benefits of walking and hiking have never been greater.

According to a number of studies, including the Wisconsin Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan and 2003 Town of Middleton Trail Use Survey, most people enjoy walking and almost as many enjoy hiking. In comparison, much smaller numbers of people ride horses, ATVs or mountain bikes off-road. The Ice Age Trail has always been intended for the largest common denominator: pedestrian use. It is open to all users.

Every few years, a loud minority of people want to bring with them any number of intrusive labor saving devices onto the Ice Age Trail that degrade the quality of the Trail and effectively diminish the experience of the majority for whom the Ice Age Trail is intended. The Ice Age Trail will fail as a trail for all users if it is opened to more uses. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

There are sensible reasons why deer hunting with a bow and arrow occurs separately from deer hunting with a gun. There are sensible reasons why interstate highways are not open to bicycles and pedestrians. There are sensible reasons why horses and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) are not allowed inside the State Capitol or Miller Park. All such rules are in place to benefit the public by discriminating against uses, not users.
ATV abuse of the Ice Age Trail near Firth Lake in 2002.

A more assertive use, such as an ATV, will unfairly dictate management decisions over other users of a shared trail. We have seen this occur in the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest. Mountain bikers were initially allowed on the Ice Age Trail but in the early 1990s as conflicts and trail degradation became obvious, it became policy to create separate foot and bike trails with the longer-standing Ice Age Trail volunteers forced to construct a new parallel trail. The minority of users who want to impose their private uses on the majority of foot travelers misuse the concept of “multiple use” or “shared use”, ignoring that their dominant use overpowers the majority pedestrian user.

Multiple use can be an effective management goal for large blocks of land, but less so for individual facilities such as freeways and trails. The Ice Age Trail is already shared by walkers, hikers, anglers, backpackers, bird watchers, snowshoers, in some instances snowmobiles, and more. It works as long as the resource-impactful uses of a minority are separated from the shared use by the majority. Doing so keeps Wisconsin’s trails safe and civil. 

In order to continue as a popular conservation, recreation, education, economic and public health facility the tread of the Ice Age Trail should remain primarily a foot trail.

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