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Jason Aric Jones, a key figure in the Michigan mountain biking community and a Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association board member, recently shared insights into the development and future plans of the DTE Energy Foundation Trail system. Jones illuminates the complexities and challenges faced by recreational trail planning and execution.

The DTE Energy Foundation Trail, situated in Michigan’s Waterloo Recreation Area, is a premier mountain bike trail system developed by the Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association in partnership with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Funded significantly by the DTE Energy Foundation, which contributed over a quarter-million dollars, the trail comprises four loops spanning over 20 miles, each offering a unique riding experience that caters to varying skill levels.

man sitting in a microbrewery

Jason Aric Jones. Photo by Doug Marrin.

Since its inception, the trail system has grown to include four completed loops, with discussions underway for a potential fifth loop that could integrate additional features like a mountain bike skills park. The trail system not only enhances the recreational landscape of the region but also serves as a community project supported by local volunteers and donations. The trail system has drawn visitors from around Michigan and the Midwest to the Chelsea area.

Jones explains the original plan and its adaptation over time. “There were plans for five loops around 20 miles. And we finished four of the five loops that were planned,” he notes. Due to the intricate layout of the existing trails, these four loops already sum up to 22 miles. While within the planned scope, this measurement leans towards the upper limit of what was initially intended for the system.

The development of the fifth loop, referred to as “Area 52,” has not been straightforward. Jones mentions the involvement of various factors, including environmental concerns and administrative changes. “The Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake became threatened, and some politics became involved with the DNR,” he says. These elements have delayed and complicated the planning processes.

Map of DTE Energy Foundation Trail system showing proposed Area 52 Loop & Skills Park and the Cassidy Lake property. Image: Google Maps edited by Doug Marrin.

Jones touches on a unique feature of the DTE trail planning and engineering – the intention given to environmental concerns. Efforts to protect the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake led to meticulous route planning and sometimes even re-routing of proposed trails to avoid sensitive habitats. Additionally, the trail development adheres to sustainable construction practices, such as minimizing soil erosion and protecting water quality by avoiding trail construction near water bodies and wetlands. These practices aim to maintain the ecological balance and support biodiversity in the Waterloo Recreation Area, ensuring that the recreational use of the land does not compromise its environmental values.

Discussing the potential for using the Cassidy Lake property, initially considered for a separate skills park, Jones elaborates on the shift in plans due to logistical and regulatory challenges. “We talked about doing some additional trail and a skills park on the Cassidy Lake prison property, but it seems like we’re pivoting more towards just finishing that loop five on DTE instead,” he notes.

The Cassidy Lake property is adjacent to the DTE’s Winn Loop. Established in 1937 as a technical school for young men aged 16 to 25, it evolved into a correctional facility until budget cuts and economies of scale closed it down in 2020. By early 2023, all the buildings had been razed.

The new direction for the fifth loop involves completing the trail and incorporating the skills area into it, which was initially suggested for Cassidy Lake. This decision aligns with logistical simplicity and the availability of existing infrastructure.

aerial view of a minimum security prison

Aerial view of Cassidy Lake Correctional Facility. Photo from 2008 Legislative Report on the Special Alternative Incarceration Program.

Furthermore, Jones discusses the broader context of the trail system in relation to other local biking trails. The Potawatomi chapter has worked to connect the DTE trail with the Waterloo-Pinckney trail, enhancing the network and accessibility for the biking community. This 8-mile connector trail connects the 22-mile DTE system with the 17-mile Potawatomi and smaller trails for more than 50 miles of contiguous trail riding.

In addition to being a board member for the Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association, Jones is Governor Whitmer’s appointee to the Michigan Trails Advisory Council, and a consultant for the League of Michigan Bicyclists. He also serves in the DNR’s State Non-motorized Trails work. Jones was a driving force in establishing the DTE Energy Foundation Trail and understand very well the depth of agreement it takes among agencies to get projects like this done.

The commitment to expanding and enhancing the trail system continues to be a collaborative effort to balance environmental concerns, user needs, and logistical challenges. As Jones aptly puts it, “It’s all still yet to be determined, but that’s kind of what we’re looking at there.”

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