Michigan National Guard Lends a Hand in Unique Rail-Trail Partnership

Posted 12/23/15 by Katie Harris in Building Trails

1432nd Engineering Company on the Iron Range Trail in Michigan | Photo by Master Sgt. Ron Raflik, Michigan National Guard

RTC wants to extend a special round of applause to this incredible example of innovative trail partnerships from the Upper Peninsula.

Several years ago, the 1432nd Engineer Company of the Michigan National Guard was in a bit of a pinch.

Iron Range Trail | Photo by Master Sgt. Ron Raflik, Michigan National Guard

In 2007, the state military agency was restructured, and the company—part of the 107th Engineer Battalion, located in Iron County—had its designation changed from combat engineering to horizontal engineering (think graders, loaders, dump trucks and other heavy equipment). The company members began their training and were ready to put their newfound knowledge into practice, but the closest military facility to test their skills was Camp Grayling (located primarily in Crawford County)—nearly 300 miles away—and that would mean hours of potential training time lost in transit.

“Because of the distance to Camp Grayling, we started looking for opportunities and training areas closer to home, closer to where [our] two armories are located,” says Sgt. 1st Class Steven Pietila. “We knew that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Forest Service were out trying to do trail maintenance, and of course, we need a place to operate our equipment.”

So they hit the trails. Teaming up with the Michigan DNR, the 1432nd Engineer Company began performing maintenance on local pathways, such as the Iron Range Trail-Crystal Falls to Iron River.

In essence, the local trails are backyard training sites with tangible needs, where the company can grade the trails, fill in uneven sections and generally make the routes safer and smoother—while keeping their skills finely tuned.

It’s a great win-win-win situation,” says John Pepin, deputy public information officer for Michigan DNR. “The partnership gives the National Guard a place to train and work … helps the DNR by reducing the amount [of resources] taken from the trail improvement program and provides the public with a better trail experience.”

Iron Range Trail | Photo by Master Sgt. Ron Raflik, Michigan National Guard

“At other training areas, you’re digging a hole and then burying it, or moving gravel from one pile to another,” explains Pietila. “But on the trail, what you’re doing is significant. It means something, not only to the members of the company but to the community.”

Since their partnership with the Michigan DNR began in 2008, the 1432nd Engineer Company has received more than a few visitors to their armories with messages of gratitude for the work being done on the trails.

“People come in all the time and say, ‘Hey! What a great job you did in this area; we travel it all the time and it’s smooth sailing.’ We pass that along to the members of the company, and they feel like they’ve made a pretty big accomplishment,” says Pietila.

Additionally, because many members of the National Guard unit live nearby, they’re able to bring their families to the trail and benefit from their own training work. And some trails are open year-round, so whether it’s a summertime hike or a wintery snowmobile trip, members of the guard are always able to see the results of their work firsthand.

The soldiers bring the skills, the DNR brings the materials, and the community as a whole benefits. This unique partnership is as strong as ever, and both parties intend to keep the collaboration alive.

“We’re hoping, as the guard is hoping, that this will continue for the foreseeable future,” says Pepin.

Do you know of other unique trail partnerships? Send them our way! Email us.

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