MTGA was founded first in 1986 as the Michigan TRRails Alliance (the double R was a play on words for “railroad”) and focused strictly on multi-use rail-trails from abandoned rail corridors. Meanwhile, the national Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC) was just getting established, and invited us to join forces as they too realized the potential of adding rail-trail miles in Michigan. We joined RTC in 1988 as their Michigan Chapter and gained valuable experience in the areas of fundraising, policy, and how to build rail-trails. During our 18 years with RTC, We helped initiate many rail-trail projects, forming friends of the trail groups, advocating, and providing know-how to make these trails happen. During this time, the state passed its own Michigan Trailways Act. Over 1,500 miles of trails came together during this opportunistic time of rapid rail abandonment. Nationally, RTC was at the helm of shaping and advocating for a major source of non-motorized trail funding within the federal Surface Transportation Act – the ISTEA program. Since its inception, RTC has remained strong and MTGA has worked in concert with them to rally help when needed. This and the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund are the two major sources of funding for non-motorized trails in our state.
In 2005, RTC had decided to regionalize its field offices, and the Michigan Field Office determined the best way to continue to assist Michigan’s trail projects would be to form its own statewide nonprofit. MTGA was reborn and began assisting with key rail-trail projects and with communities wishing to extend their trails through the use of other linear facilities for connections such as utility corridors, road rights of way, public land, and other linear resources to grow trail networks.
In 2006, MTGA started the Connecting Michigan: A Statewide Trails Vision and Action Plan to identify the issues standing in the way of a fully developed interconnected statewide trail network. Ten task forces studied the critical barriers: trailway funding for acquisition, development, and maintenance; property acquisition and easement issues; trails promotion and mapping; trails programming to encourage use; on-road non-motorized connections to close the gaps; building trail support through education and advocacy, gaining regional collaboration to advance trail efforts; coordinating statewide resources for funding, planning and design; multi-use trail design guidelines, and formalizing the statewide trailways network. The deliberation and endorsement of some 200 partners that collaborated on this plan laid the groundwork for MTGA to be recognized for advocacy and trails leadership in the state. Over the years the work on these cross-state trails, our advocacy on complete streets initiatives to fill in non-motorized trail networks, partnering with Michigan tourism officials to make our trails much more user-friendly and accessible, and collaborating with other non-motorized trails groups to build a unified voice for the good of the whole system has all resulted from our Connecting Michigan: A Statewide Trails Vision and Action Plan.
In 2008, in part because of our recognition for this work, we became affiliated with the Michigan Fitness Foundation and the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness, Health and Sports. We have grown into an advanced trail network, boasting well over 3,000 miles of multi-use trails. Because Michigan is #1 for rail trail miles in the nation, we have seized the opportunity to create a cross-state interconnected system. Our work on the ground has enabled two notable cross-state trail initiatives; the Great Lake to Lake Trail from South Haven to Port Huron and the Iron Belle Trail from Ironwood to Belle Isle..
On any given day of the week we may be “deep in the forest” working on individual or regional trail issues or you can find us soaring above at the statewide level, facilitating cross-state routes, working on trails policy initiatives for funding, promotion, and stewardship or presenting our trails expertise at conferences and workshops across Michigan and at National Trails conferences and seminars.