The Potawatomi Trail (“Poto”), the iconic recreational natural surface pathway nestled in the northwest territory of Washtenaw County, is undergoing a significant transformation. Jason Aric Jones, a prominent figure in the Michigan mountain biking community and a board member of the Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association (PMBA), recently gave some insights into the revitalization efforts aimed at repairing and enhancing the sustainability of the trail.

“After completing the DTE-Poto connector, we pivoted towards Poto revitalization because the Potawatomi trail was built using legacy techniques,” Jones begins, highlighting the trail’s origins. “I think in ’64 is when the scouts built the main trail, and they just didn’t use modern sustainable building techniques.” Over the years, the trail’s initial construction methods have led to erosion and other issues, making parts challenging and potentially hazardous for users.

man sitting in a microbrewery

Jason Aric Jones. Photo by Doug Marrin.

The Poto Revitalization Project or “Poto Project” is a multi-year project focused on enhancing the sustainability and user experience of the Potowatomi Trail. The Poto was built 60 years
ago before the emergence of current commonly accepted sustainable building practices.  Its ascents and descents were built using geographical fall lines which has led to an extensive number of heavily eroded sections that continue to degrade.

“Our goal was to look at the trail comprehensively,” Jones continues, “and devise a plan to do two things: make it more sustainable going forward and more recreationally fun or desirable.” The PMBA aims to retain the trail’s backcountry character while ensuring it is safer and more accessible. “Anyone who mountain bikes, hikes, or trail runs knows Potawatomi is no joke. You can get hurt out there,” observes Jason.

Image: Google maps

Jones elaborates on the trail’s current state, describing it as “gnarly” due to erosion and poor initial construction. “A lot of things have happened organically where the trail is broken down because of the old-school construction, creating erosion channels and rot,” he explains. “We don’t want it to be a bike-optimized flow trail like DTE, but we want to keep it a multi-use backcountry trail while making it sustainable and more recreationally aesthetic.”

Securing funding was a critical step in the revitalization process. “I worked through my channels with the Michigan Trails Advisory Council and the DNR to get a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grant for the Potawatomi chapter,” Jones says. This grant, amounting to several hundred thousand dollars, has been pivotal in moving the project forward. “We got that a couple of years ago, but then we’ve been involved in the last two years with the DNR and Fish and Wildlife in working out where we could reroute.”

before and after photo of trail reconsrtuction

Blind Lake Hill before and after. Photos: PMBA

The plan includes seven major reroutes to address areas that couldn’t be sustained through simple corridor work. “There are areas that couldn’t be made sustainable without rerouting to a different grade or out slope,” Jones notes. The approval process was extensive, involving various DNR and Fish and Wildlife divisions. “We finally worked with the DNR over a couple of years with their stewardship division to get approval. They had to get Fish and Wildlife approval on it or sign off.”

The PMBA put the project out for bid through the Professional Trail Builders Association. Spectrum Trail Design, known for its work on the DTE Energy Foundation Trail and the Dragon Trail at Hardy Dam in Newaygo County, won the contract. “They have a lot of Midwestern trail-building experience,” Jones says. “They’re going to be starting work in about a week on these seven major sustainable reroutes and also some corridor work.”

More before and after photos. Photos: PMBA

This phase of the project will cover about half of the Potawatomi Trail. “We anticipate that in the future, there will be a second phase for the northern part of the Potawatomi Trail,” Jones adds. The ultimate goal is to restore the trail to a state that attracts multiple types of trail users, including hikers, runners, and bikers. “We think that once this project is complete, it will bring many more people back to the trail.”

Jones emphasizes the collaborative nature of the project. “This isn’t just a me thing. This is the Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association,” he says. He also acknowledges the support from the local community, including contributions from events organized by Running Fit. “They’ve contributed to the Potawatomi Chapter for our work to maintain the trail,” Jones mentions.

Jones’s passion for the trail and its revitalization is evident throughout the conversation. “We are mountain bikers, but the techniques we employ are standards used by BLM and the US Forest Service for sustainable trail building,” he explains. The focus is on sustainability, using modern techniques like proper grading, outslope, and drainage basins to ensure the trail’s longevity and usability.

Jones emphasizes that while PMBA is spearheading the fundraising and oversight of the trail improvements, it is being done for all users. “It’s important that people don’t get confused, thinking we’re redesigning the trail primarily for mountain bikers,” he says. “Sure, we are cyclists, but we use universal techniques for natural surface, non-motorized trails. The revitalization of the Potawatomi Trail is set to make it a more enjoyable and sustainable destination for all trail enthusiasts.”

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