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Paving the Way for a Great Lakes Trail

Susan Bence
Melissa Scanlan at Doctors Park on Lake Michigan.


Grand hiking trails of the U.S. include the Appalachian and the Pacific Coast Trails, but if Melissa Scanlan has her way, there will be another one – a Great Lakes Trail, which would span eight states and two Canadian provinces.

Scanlan now teaches environmental law at Vermont Law School, but her roots are in Wisconsin and Lake Michigan. The idea of a Great Lakes Trail came to her as she was hiking the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin.

“I was hiking different segments of the trail and in my work life I was writing and researching the Public Trust Doctrine and thinking about the public’s right to access beaches across the United States,” Scanlan says.

She came upon a spot where an owner didn’t allow Ice Age hikers to enter private property.

“And it really struck me how many landowners had to give up easements, or sell easement to make the Ice Age Trail a reality. It was in that moment I realized there has always been a public trust easement on the coastline all along the Great Lakes and we’re not accessing it as a trail,” Scanlan says.

She pulled together her idea in what she called the Blueprint for the Great Lakes Trail.

“And a law review from University of Michigan Law School environmental review published that and I’ve been able to start to talk to people around the Great Lakes to see if there would be support for a new national/binational Scenic Trail that would tie together all of the communities of the Great Lakes,” Scanlan says.

The trail would stretch over 10,000 miles. “It would be the longest marked walking trail in the world,” Scanlan explains.

Credit S Bence
People enjoy a Lake Michigan beach.

She envision a low-impact, multi-use trail. “You could walk in certain segments, bike in areas where shoreline access isn’t available, kayak or canoe,” Scanlan says.

She says it could be a big expedition for people wanting to take on all of the Great Lakes, or a day hike for those who want to bite off little chunks.

It would take two acts of Congress to make the trail official.

“The first act of Congress would be to authorize a feasibility study and generally the National Park Service is the agency directed to carry out the study. That would allow the public to see where the trail would go, what existing segments are already here. What the economic costs to be a reality,” Scanlan says.

Step two would be to decide whether or not to recognize a National Scenic Trail.

Scanlan admits those are big, time-consuming goals but smaller steps can be achieved more easily.

“I think a first step would be to link all of the existing trails segments– whether those are walking or hiking on the uplands or water trails that are being established for kayaking and other folks; linking those together in a cohesive whole so people start thinking of this as one complete unit around the region. And then adding too that where we can,” Scanlan says.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.