PIERSON — Multiple signs placed along the White Pine Trail currently state “Trail Closed” … and Pierson Township Supervisor Dan Buyze couldn’t be happier about it.
After nearly two years of work by Buyze and other local and state officials, a section of the trail is finally set to be paved from Sand Lake north to Howard City — bringing Pierson into the paved portion of the 92-mile trail, which is part of the 150-year-old Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad line (see accompanying info box for more history.) Since 1998, 63 miles of the trail have been paved, while 29 miles remain unpaved from Kent County’s Sand Lake north to Mecosta County’s Big Rapids — and 12 of the unpaved miles are located in Montcalm County.
The $2.3 million project is being funded by a $3 million Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) grant (much of which went to infrastructure repairs, such as culvert replacements on the trail before actual paving could begin) as well as private donations through West Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition in Grand Rapids. The Friends of the White Pine Trail were instrumental in helping obtain the MEDC funding.
Buyze, who was elected Pierson Township supervisor in 2020, ran on a platform to create more recreational opportunities within his community.
“The paving of the White Pine Trail from Sand Lake to Howard City, and in the future beyond to Big Rapids, is an excellent example of what can be accomplished when government units, private citizens and organizations overcome roadblocks when working toward common goals and objectives,” Buyze said. “This project, once completed to Big Rapids, will be one of the biggest recreational enhancements to the general public in West Michigan in a long time. In addition, all the communities in its path will see economic benefits.”
The long-stalled-out project got a push forward in November 2020 when Buyze and John Morrison of West Michigan Trails & Greenways walked the trail from the village of Pierson to the village of Sand Lake and back again to strategize how to make paving the trail a priority for state officials.
In March 2021, Buyze and Morrison organized a monthly Zoom meeting along with Pierson Township Clerk Sara Burkholder, Howard City Village Manager Mike Falcon, Scott Slavin and Greg Kinser with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Recreational Grant Coordinator Alex McBride, Michigan Recreational Grants Unit Manager John Mayes, and Paul Griffith and Dave Heyboer with the Friends of the White Pine Trail.
In June, the state awarded a contractor bid to Michigan Paving & Materials Co. in Jackson, with Dean’s Landscaping & Excavating in Sand Lake acting as the project’s sub-contractor.
Slavin noted that Dean’s work office is located about 50 feet from the trail.
“Dean’s is a great contractor in the area, they’ve done good work for us,” Slavin said. “Our expected completion date is the end of October.”
On Monday, construction finally got underway for paving the trail from Sand Lake to Howard City. Brushing and mulching will be underway for a few weeks before actual paving begins.
“There should have been fireworks going off,” Griffith declared. “This is a very big deal, as it has been four years since there was a new section of trail paved — 11 miles paved in 2018 from Reed City to Leroy and I don’t know how many years a section prior to that. It took 20 years (1998 to 2018) to get 63 miles of the trail paved. Here’s hoping that next year is the year that the remaining 22 miles get paved, thanks to ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds.”
Slavin said he’s currently working on engineering designs for the remaining portion of the trail to be paved from Howard City to Big Rapids, which he anticipates will happen sooner rather than later.
Griffith noted that the Cadillac Trailhead is scheduled to be completed by Sept. 30 for $566,000, while the Big Rapids Depot exterior should be completely restored by the end of next week — both located along the trail.
“The current construction phase and the momentum to complete the paving of the White Pine has been a long time coming, beginning with the first acquisition grants in 1994 and the trail development and early paving projects in the ’90s,” Morrison said. “We’re super excited for Sand Lake to Howard City to be paved, bringing the trail that much closer to being the destination it was always meant to be.”
In 2006, the village of Howard City constructed a staging area adjacent to the trail near the Timothy C. Hauenstein Reynolds Township Library — complete with parking, Wi-Fi, restrooms and other amenities for anyone utilizing the trail. Falcon, who was hired as village manager in 2017, said he imagines village officials at the time believed that their investment in the staging area would bring great things to the community once the trail was fully paved.
“It has taken some time, but we are beginning to see the fruits of everyone’s labor,” Falcon said.
During Tuesday evening’s Pierson Village Council meeting, Buyze was excited to report on the start of the paving project as it will be a tourism benefit for Pierson Township’s neighboring village of Pierson — especially the Pierson Village Inn bar and restaurant and the Pierson Trading Post gas station and meat market, both just across the street from the trail.
“With any kind of luck, we could be riding bikes on there sometime in October,” Buyze said.
“That is awesome,” Village President Tammy Patton responded. “It’s been pretty exciting to see what’s going on. You guys have done a great job with that for sure.”
A closer look at the White Pine Trail
The White Pine Trail is part of the 150-year-old Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad line.
In 1997, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization called Friends of the White Pine Trail was established to work with local communities and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to transform it into an emerging concept at that time known as Rails-to-Trails.
The first section of trail to get paved was a 13-mile stretch from Big Rapids north to Reed City in 1998. Over the next 23 years, 50 more miles were paved. Also, during this time, some significant enhancements were made along the trail, such as Reed City building a replica of its old depot, Rockford making significant enhancements along with businesses in its downtown area along the trail and Howard City building a staging area along the trail in town.
The White Pine Trail is one of the Top 100 Rails-to-Trails in America, as determined by the National Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The trail crosses 22 rivers, streams and creeks and 167 streets, roads and private drives.
The White Pine Trail is the longest paved (majority) rail-to-trail out of more than 2,600 miles of converted old railroad lines. The trail represents a good segment of mileage of the Great Lake-to-Great Lake Route 2, which stretches from Muskegon to Grand Rapids, north to Reed City, east to Midland, Saginaw and Bay City for a total of 210 miles.
Fifteen communities provide short and easy access to multiple points along the trail via either U.S 131 or Northland Drive (old 131).
Fred Meijer donated $1 million toward the development of the trail more than 20 years ago. Federal and state DNR Trust Fund dollars, corporate and small business donations and hundreds of individual donations have also been made over the last two decades.
Source: Friends of the White Pine Trail: www.whitepinetrail.com/welcome