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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Wendy Nelson of Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports on a recent ban on public lands against the old far north tranportation mode of dog mushing.


CURWOOD: In Michigan, tempers started flaring this winter just as temperatures started dropping. A recent order from the state's Department of Natural Resources banned the popular sport of dog sledding on state-owned snowmobile trails. And that caused a rift between snowmobilers and dog sledders, 2 groups that had previously coexisted peacefully. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson reports.

(High winds and falling sleet)

NELSON: Winters are harsh in Michigan's upper peninsula. Today, sleet is coming down hard, the winds have kicked up, and the forecast calls for another foot of snow by day's end. Most residents here brace themselves for another onslaught of bitter cold. They bundle up and hope for an early spring. But for some, winter is a glorious time of year.

(A woman calls to baying dogs)

NELSON: Michelle Peterson is a dog sledder. She's been sledding for 8 years, has 27 dogs, and knows all of them by name.

PETERSON: What I say is R-E-A-D-Y. You know, if I say it, then they are, you know what I mean? Ready? Let's go, hike on!

(Sled over snow)

PETERSON: Hike on, that's the way!

NELSON: Peterson says dog sledding, or mushing as it's also known, offers her a way to enjoy the beauty that characterizes Michigan's wild places.

PETERSON: I've spotted wolves, bobcats, eagles, seen deer do all kinds of interesting things. My husband's seen one deer disappear into the snow, lay down into the snow, completely, the snow just covered her last winter. (To the dogs) On by, on by, on by...

NELSON: Peterson says dog sledding is a solitary sport. She says mushers are the kind of people who don't usually join groups. But this year, that's changed. Peterson and other mushers are banding together to defend their right to travel over state-owned snowmobile trails. A new order from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources banned dog sledding for more than 1000 miles of groomed trails, unless it's part of an approved event like an organized race. But Peterson says sometimes the only route between 2 places is over a snowmobile trail, and taking away that access would have a definite impact.

PETERSON: It will stop me from visiting some of my neighbors. It will stop me from attending some of the stores. And sometimes we go for lunch at different places. And that brings in business to some of the local business owners. They see the dog team stopped out in front of the restaurant or such and people do stop in, and see what's going on. They like to see us.

NELSON: There are nearly 235,000 licensed snowmobilers in Michigan. Estimates place the number of mushers at a few hundred. Still, some snowmobilers don't want to share the trails. Wally Bushy has been an avid snowmachiner for more than 25 years. He says the issue is safety on the trails.

BUSHY: You're playing with dynamite with dogs on the trail and snowmobilers. I mean, because snowmobilers travel now, you know. I mean, especially when you groom trails they go fast. And you meet a dog team on a curve, I don't know what's going to happen.

NELSON: It's anyone's guess what might happen, since there have been no documented accidents caused by mushers. And that leaves Michelle Peterson wondering what's really behind the dog sled ban.

PETERSON: And I don't believe this is a safety issue. I believe it's a land use issue. And I'm just wondering, are they trying to create a wilderness for snowmachiners, you know? Should a special interest group be allowed to purchase sole rights to the trail?

NELSON: If sheer numbers are any indication of who will triumph in this conflict, Michelle Peterson says mushers don't stand a chance. Though the number of mushers is comparatively small, Michigan's snowmobile program manager Dan Moore maintains that even one musher in the wrong place at the wrong time is one too many.

MOORE: I dread the day that I see an accident between a snowmobile and a dog sled, where they flash across a TV a picture of a dead dog and the snowmobiler takes it on the chin. No matter what happened, the snowmobiler's going to take the blame.

NELSON: Conflicts over public land use aren't new, but they are growing as competition for open space intensifies. Disputes have also been seen on waterways, where anglers have clashed with boaters, and where now the issue is over the use of jet skis. According to one conservation organization, these conflicts might best be resolved by the user groups themselves.

MARSHALL: On the whole the groups can usually broker some sort of negotiation that would result in everyone being able to use the area with the understanding that the other user group is going to be out there at some point.

NELSON: Lori Marshall is director of the Outdoor Ethics Program at the Isaac Walton League, one of the country's oldest conservation groups.

MARSHALL: And often these types of decisions don't necessarily need to get to the regulatory level. And I think it's much more effective when those decisions are made by the users themselves, as opposed to becoming an enforcement issue.

NELSON: And that's where the standoff in Michigan is right now. Because of the controversy, the state has temporarily suspended its ban while state officials, snowmobilers, and mushers hold a series of meetings to reach a consensus on who gets what access to the trails.

(Sled over snow)

NELSON: Dog sledder Michelle Peterson says she's never had a conflict with a snowmachiner. And while she's wary of the snowmobilers' lobbying clout, she says she's willing to meet with them to work out a way to share the trails.

PETERSON: Ho, ho, ho. (A snowmobile motors by) Okay, good, thanks. He had control of his machine and he did let me know that there was someone else coming. So I'm going to slow my team down and put my Cat right down.

NELSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson in Norway, Michigan.



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