Tribe, state exploring $14M path around bay
Native Americans in the Upper Peninsula and the state of Michigan are exploring a plan to build a 12-mile hiking and bicycling trail that would connect two villages on opposite sides of a Lake Superior bay — and, supporters hope, boost tourism and economic development in the beautiful but remote area.
The findings of a feasibility study will be presented Wednesday at a casino in Baraga, one point on the proposed trail that would run along the southern rim of Keweenaw Bay from Zeba to Sand Point. The trail, which could cost roughly $14 million, would be built with the support of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and L’Anse Reservation, since a majority of it would be on tribal land.
The study was commissioned by the Indian community, which is located on the reservation and serves the far northern Michigan counties of Baraga, Houghton and Ontonagon. Its president, Warren Swartz Jr., said in a news release the project can benefit the reservation, residents and tourists.
“We are excited about the symbolism and possibilities in uniting local residents in support of this project which links the communities and offers an inspiring path for visitors to explore the geography, history and culture of our area,” Swartz said.
The project received an initial boost from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. in the form of a $160,000 grant, which paid for the study produced by a Houghton-based engineering and architectural firm. MEDC Chief Executive Steve Arwood sees the study as “a catalyst for economic development,” adding that the trail could help “transform one of the state’s most spectacular geographical and culturally significant locations.”
The project comes with challenges — starting with the high price tag. The study recommends several potential avenues for funding, including county, state, federal and tribal sources. Other issues to consider include cooperation among multiple jurisdictions, acquiring land and avoiding burial sites near Sand Point.
The MEDC itself is dealing with its own concerns: It recently terminated 65 employees as a result of a steep revenue drop that partly stems from a dispute over payments from the Indian tribe that runs the Gun Lake Casino in Allegan County.
Still, state officials say, the trail project predates those problems and supports its goal to help build sustainable economies beyond casinos on the state’s 12 federally recognized Indian tribes. Backers like Swartz say it could help grow tourism on tribal lands and in Baraga County, which has struggled in recent years with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state and, at times, the nation.
Martin Reinhardt, an assistant professor of Native American studies at Northern Michigan University in Marquette and citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said he welcomes cooperation between tribal and non-tribal governments and economic development, provided any plan doesn’t disrupt “our fragile ecosystems.”
“As long as it’s in line with the idea of a green economy, (the trail) makes total sense to me,” he said.