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Doty Bridge,Jim Duke

It Only Took 20 Years!

By Jim Duke

For several years, the laminated wooden bridge over the north branch of Stutt’s Creek, known as the Doty Trestle Bridge, was an integral link in the major east-west snowmobile corridor between the Soo and Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. However, sometime in the late 1990s the USDA’s National Forest Service engineers examined the structure and determined the continuing deterioration was making it unsafe for vehicular passage, even for the weight of a snow machine.

Because of this inspection report, the Munising District Ranger at that time called an emergency meeting with the Department of Natural Resources and the local grant sponsor to consider what should, or could, be done to keep the trail open. It was in mid-October of 2000 and the timeframe for establishing any reroutes was shrinking daily. The best proposal was to use the Chamberlain, a seasonal road, to bypass the structure and keep the trail intact. This was agreed to by all participants.

Doty Bridge,Jim Duke
First step was closing the trail and establishing a detour around the work site.
Doty Bridge,Jim Duke
Removal of the old pilings and deteriorated structure.

Unfortunately, as is proper protocol for all federally managed public lands, the reroute was subject to NEPA guidelines and would require not only an environmental assessment but also an open forum with an opportunity for public comment by residents and other concerned citizens. Once this announcement was made public, organizations such as the Sierra Club and Wildlife International initiated a nationwide call to action in opposition of any such reroutes and demanded the trail be closed. They seemed determined to restrict where possible or eliminate access to all motorized recreational vehicles.

During the comment period, several hundred written comments were received by the Hiawatha National Forest supervisor, with the majority opposed to using any forest roads as an alternative route for snowmobiles to get around the now condemned and barricaded Doty Bridge — even though the majority of locals were in favor.

The major conflict arose between the state snowmobile program administrators and the district ranger over funding of the replacement bridge. Because the trail was primarily for snowmobile use, the program was agreeable to partial funding for a 20-ton capacity bridge. The district ranger was adamant that a replacement structure be equal to the original with an 80-ton capacity. On the snowmobile program’s side, paying for the much heavier bridge was thought to be a waste of snowmobile funds. The Forest Service believed the bridge should be capable of supporting emergency fire-suppressing equipment and maybe logging trucks and because a replacement was necessary anyway, it should be engineered per the district ranger’s request. Hence, the stalemate.

Doty Bridge,Jim Duke
Stabilizing the soil and setting the abutments.
Doty Bridge,Jim Duke
New bridge arrives with oversized load escorts.

It was about this time that the Region 1 Representative for the Michigan Snowmobile Association called upon the director of Recreation, Wilderness and Heritage at Region 9 Headquarters for the National Forest Service in Milwaukee to intervene and assist with a solution. A temporary bridge was immediately placed across the stream atop the old one without any scheduled destruction of the bridge. This was around Nov. 1, 2000, and by that Thanksgiving, the temporary bridge was in place and the trail again opened for use. It was decided the temporary structure would remain in place no longer than seven years, and only until an agreement between the DNR and the NFS on funding could be reached and a replacement engineered and built. A great plan, but like so many other long-range goals, it was destined to fall through the bureaucratic cracks.

Shortly after the temporary bridge was in place, the American Council of Snowmobile Associations hosted an snowmobile ride for the National Forest Service chief and other agency dignitaries from both the Washington, D.C. office and the Region 9 headquarters to “enlighten them” on the effects of snowmobiling on the local communities and gave them an opportunity to visit the Doty Bridge. The term “Enlightenment Ride” was given to this and several events in following years, not only in Michigan but also in other snow belt states as well — always with the purpose of showcasing snowmobiling partnerships between the snowmobilers and the NFS.

Doty Bridge,Jim Duke
The new bridge is in and waiting to fill in the approaches and open up the trail.
Doty Bridge,Jim Duke
Setting the new bridge in place.

The seven years came and went without any action and, somewhere around 10 years, the temporary bridge was developing a sag rather than the bow it originally had. This caused a sight restriction between the east side and the west side and made crossing it a safety hazard. On Hiawatha National Forest’s West Zone, the Munising District Ranger was the primary contact. The previous ranger had been reassigned and new personnel took over those responsibilities, so a review of the bridge’s status placed it back on the priority list.

Sometime shortly after the snowmobile season of 2019, the Munising District Ranger initiated another inspection of the bridge site and set the engineering process in motion as the first step in what would eventually result in the replacement. On March 21, 2019, engineering plans were presented to the DNR, the bid process initiated and the contracts written.

Doty Bridge,Jim Duke
The new bridge is in and now the approaches need to be filled in to open up the trail.

Although the bridge is on Hiawatha National Forest land, the snowmobile trail itself is under the jurisdiction of the state, so it became a joint project to come up with the necessary funds to remove the temporary bridge and then the existing condemned bridge structure, to stabilize the ground on both sides of the stream and to get the abutments in place. Unfortunately, with each year of delay the cost increased dramatically and what was initially a $250,000 project turned into a $1 million-plus debacle with very little light at the end of the tunnel.

Were it not for the perseverance of some very dedicated individuals in the state DNR, the NFS and a multitude of snowmobiling volunteers, the Doty Trestle Bridge project may never have been completed. Thanks to those folks with the know-how to get things done, grants were acquired through the FHWA’s Recreational Trails Program, the Snowmobile Trails Improvement Fund and funding from any number of other agencies and sources. The Alger County SORVA (local grant sponsor) played a huge part in the process, working closely with the DNR Eastern UP Recreational Specialist and the NFS’s Munising District Ranger to see this project to a successful completion … and it only took 20 years!

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