Mountain biking has become so popular at some state game areas (SGAs) in Michigan that hunters and anglers are no longer the primary users of these areas.
While seemingly innocuous on its surface, this shift carries with it several unintended consequences.
Abraham Downer, an avid hunter and upland hunting dog trainer, lived for several years in Kent County — the home of Cannonsburg State Game Area (SGA).
Cannonsburg is one of a handful of public lands in Kent County, and the only place near Downer’s home where he could train his dogs, so he would visit as often as he could — three to five times a week.
It didn’t take long for Downer to realize that hunters, anglers and dog trainers were a minority at Cannonsburg, which was dominated by mountain bikers.
Depending on the time of year, particularly turkey season, Downer said finding parking could be a significant challenge, as most of the available spots were taken by mountain bikers. By comparison, even during the midst of firearm deer season, Downer said there might only be a couple of vehicle spots taken.
Turkey hunting was “almost impossible,” said Downer, who added that he was nearly struck by passing mountain bikers on trails more times than he can count.
Downer said that while the vast majority of mountain bikers he came across were friendly, respectful and courteous, a few yelled at him for training his dogs there — something expressly allowed at any state game area.
Downer said he also witnessed mountain bikers on trails during times of year when they’re not supposed to be in the state game area, anytime between Sept. 15 and Feb. 1 in Cannonsburg.
In 2019, Downer wrote an email to DNR officials in the area requesting that something be done to remedy the situation.
“It upsets me greatly that a public resource as rare as this, in an area that lacks it almost entirely, is neglected to this level,” Downer wrote.
The group that grooms the trails at Cannonsburg is the West Michigan Mountain Biking Alliance, which also maintains a number of other trail systems throughout Michigan, although none of the others are within state game areas.
WMMBA Vice President Matt Schmuker said mountain bikers enjoy Cannonsburg for the same reason that hunters and anglers in the area do — because there aren’t a lot of public outdoor spaces in Kent County.
Schmuker said the group takes pains to emphasize to its members the importance of being good stewards of the public lands they’re using and to be respectful of other users.
Schmuker added that many hunters and anglers are also mountain bikers, creating a natural positive crossover between the two types of users.
“It’s a pretty easy relationship,” Schmuker said. “We haven’t had any negative feedback so far.”
Nick Green, director of communications and marketing for Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said that state game areas were purchased using earmarked funds with strings attached. He has heard from hunters displaced by mountain bikers.
“We are seeing a deviation from what is allowed on state game area lands that were purchased using PR and hunter dollars,” Green said. “Almost always it is a misunderstanding — such as funding mechanisms, laws, intentions, etc. — that allows for activities, such as mountain biking, on these lands.”
Mark Mills, with the DNR Wildlife Division, said the increasing popularity of mountain biking in state game areas is something they’ve been keeping an eye on for some time.
The department’s interest is due to funding, which is tied to ensuring SGAs are mainly used for wildlife-related recreation.
All SGAs in Michigan were purchased with funds allocated through the Pittman-Robertson Act. The act, passed in 1937 and now known as Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration, collects an excise tax on firearm and ammunition sales to raise money for wildlife conservation efforts in the U.S.
In addition to being purchased through Pittman-Robertson Act funds, SGAs are also managed through this funding.
To be clear, there are state parks in Michigan where there aren’t strings attached to how they can be used, but Mills said these were purchased by the state using money from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund — not federal funds.
Mills said when the SGA properties were originally purchased through the Pittman-Robertson Act several decades ago, mountain biking trails didn’t exist. In the 1970s, the DNR began allowing other types of activities at SGAs, such as cross-country skiing. Mills said these other activities did not interfere with the area’s intended uses, so they were permitted.
As the population of Michigan has increased, Mills said they’ve seen mountain biking continue to grow in popularity and intensity of use, evolving from a casual hobby into something more akin to a sport.
In addition to Cannonsburg, Mills said mountain biking has taken over a handful of other SGAs in the state, including Rose Lake State Wildlife Area, Pentwater River State Game Area and Allegan State Game Area.
Given that federal tax dollars are used to manage these areas, Mills said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is interested in how they’re used.
If a federal auditor were to visit a state game area and see it being used primarily for things other than wildlife-based recreation, it may jeopardize that funding.
About two years ago, the DNR created a workgroup to investigate the issue and develop solutions.
Mills, who is part of the group, said they intend to issue recommendations on mountain biking at SGAs “sometime soon.”
The group’s recommendation could be to implement additional regulations at SGAs, including prohibiting use by mountain bikers during turkey season, which runs from April 22 to June 7.
With just two to three DNR enforcement agents in each county, Mills acknowledged that enforcing additional regulations would be challenging. He said they intend to communicate with the various user groups, which they expect will self-police their members. If compliance is not met, Mills said the DNR may have no choice but to prohibit mountain biking at these sites completely.
Schmuker, with the WMMBA, said not being able to use the area during turkey season will be challenging, as that’s an ideal time of year for mountain biking.
“I think a lot of people would be disappointed,” Schmuker said. “It doesn’t really feel like that’s an inclusive use of the land.”
Schmuker added, however, that he was unaware of the SGA’s federal funding mechanism and understood the DNR’s position.
“We appreciate that it’s a decision that’s not up to us, and we’ll respect it,” Schmuker said. “There has to be some sort of compromise. We can probably figure out some cool way to not be selfish users of the site.”