Copper Harbor, Michigan became an early icon for mountain bike destinations. IMBA awarded the town Silver Level Ride Center status in 2012, influenced by the variety of trails, and mountain bike-friendly establishments spread across town. Trails like Danimal and Flying Squirrel, with their roller coaster planks and dirt jumps set the tone for the town’s singletrack and showed other destinations that if they cater to mountain bikers, the compliment will be returned ten-fold through visitation and tourism dollars.
But since May of this year, some of the same trails that influenced Copper Harbor’s status as a mountain bike destination have been closed by the county government over concerns about liability. The Copper Harbor Trails Club (CHTC) has been given one option: upgrade their liability insurance to a $5 million annual limits policy — five times the typical amount required by clubs across the nation — or the trails will be shut down permanently. The CHTC has until spring of 2022 to find a new insurance policy, which has proved to be somewhat of a unicorn thus far.
Closing Copper Harbor’s advanced trails
The trails closed by the Keweenaw County Board of Commissioners include Danimal, Flying Squirrel, Downtown, and Overflow. Downtown also crosses two different private parcels of land and both revoked access this year. Another trail, Stairway to Heaven, was also shuttered to mountain bikers.
“It’s kind of a battle of — how much fight[ing] can we do here before we have to give up just because the costs are so unreasonably high to meet the levels of insurance that we don’t really need?” Nathan Miller, the executive director of CHTC told Singletracks in an interview.
The issue started to come to a head near the end of 2020. Like any outdoor mecca, Copper Harbor struggled with managing the spread of coronavirus in their small township of less than 100 people which holds a median age of 62.5 years. This was of course complicated by the fact that Copper Harbor’s economy is heavily dependent on tourist revenue.
When the immediate pressures and restrictions of the pandemic eased, tourists and mountain bikers flocked to Copper Harbor. Not everyone in town was pleased. One of the private landowners who revoked access reportedly did so because he thought mountain bikers had turned his property into “Disney World” and riders have caught a rap for changing out of their gear and exposing themselves in public places and using undesignated areas as restrooms.
But the main issue that prompted the trail closures, according to Keweenaw County, were a string of injuries on the jump and feature trails, even though liability would be very hard to pin on the township or the trails club.
“I want to make it very clear,” said Don Piche, the board chairman of Keweenaw County in an interview, “The county never ever wanted to close those trails. The problem there is what they call feature trails, or manmade features on these trails,” he said referring to dirt jumps and wooden planks and jumps.
“Our insurance company told us if we don’t do something, we might lose our insurance,” Piche added. “Or our premiums would go sky high. So they kind of forced us to do something.”
Piche said that the county has been trying to find a way to alleviate the issue since 2020. When the mountain bike trails were opening for the season on Memorial Day weekend of 2021, the county forced CHTC to close the four trails, all rated as double black diamond trails on CHTC’s website, or all of their trails on county property would be closed.
In a phone interview, Piche told Singletracks that the county’s insurance representative Mark Hannula of Hannula Agency recommended that all of the trails should be closed, but Piche said that wouldn’t be possible. Piche said that Hannula told them the county risked their insurance premiums rising.
Hannula supposedly conducted an insurance assessment and determined that a $5 million policy carried by the CHTC would satisfy the risk. CHTC said they never received an insurance assessment from Hannula and the club wasn’t included during an on-site review, even though they were supposed to be.
When Singletracks reached out to Hannula for an interview, he quickly declined the request and expressed a distrust for the media. Hannula did not respond to multiple follow-up requests.
What’s at risk?
Keweenaw County fears a “catastrophic claim.” A neck injury, a paralyzation, or a life-changing incident.
“Who’s going to pay for that?” said Piche. “You know they’re going to come after the county.”
In the 1990s, Bob Wilson served in the Michigan Senate as counsel to the Natural Resources Committee and helped write several trail-related laws, including Michigan landowner liability laws. The Senate wanted to promote getting outdoors safely and encourage residents to use public lands and ease public and private landowners’ concerns about liability. “It was a great time to be passing trail laws,” said Wilson in an interview.
To make it safer all around, the laws were written to protect public and private landowners in the vast majority of cases. According to Michigan law, a landowner, tenant, or lessee would have to show gross negligence or wanton disregard for public safety to be liable for an injury on public land or private land available for public use.
In this case, that may look something like a severe lack of trail signage or warnings ahead of risky features or removing the landing of a jump without closing the trail, though it’s hard to say exactly, and depends on the circumstances in each incident. Piche said that he doesn’t believe the CHTC or Keweenaw County have been grossly negligent in regard to trail building or maintenance. Governments such as Keweenaw County also have another layer of protection from liability in government immunity.
“What I’m getting at is there’s significant liability protection,” said Wilson, adding that it would be “totally difficult” to hold a county liable for an injury, though not impossible in the case of gross negligence.
Singletracks emailed and called Keweenaw County Attorney Charles Miller several times to discuss liability. Miller did not respond to inquiries.
Miller of the CHTC and others fear that the peculiar request for a $5 million insurance policy would set an unwanted precedent for other land managers in the country. Typically, $1 million per incident and $2 million aggregate is the standard across the US for mountain bike advocacy organizations, generally in the form of a commercial general liability policy, which covers liability claims tied to building or maintenance.
Unfortunately for clubs like the CHTC, which are nonprofits responsible for securing funding for their own trails and salaries and often use volunteers for building and maintenance to provide trails for public use, the onus to pay for an insurance policy falls on them and can eat up a large portion of their revenue.
The $1 million policy CHTC holds now is used by nearly every other mountain bike advocacy organization in the US, and the $5 million excess policy presented to CHTC has coverage exclusions, or cases where the insurance doesn’t cover, which the current CHTC policy already has, as it’s difficult to get a policy at this limit that doesn’t contain exclusions for some of the risks that need to be insured.
For Scott Chapin at Marsh and McLennan Agency, CHTC’s insurance agency, the request has been unusual.
“I’ve never seen a land manager other than Copper Harbor request more than $1 million,” said Chapin in an interview. Chapin is quick to deny that $1 million is enough though. Insurance agencies can never say that a policy is enough, because records break, but he hasn’t seen a land management agency request more than $1 million from a club and he hasn’t seen a claim over $1 million, after insuring hundreds of different clubs throughout the nation.
“Organizations and land managers often make the incorrect assumption that every time a mountain biker gets hurt on ‘their’ trail system that this warrants a liability claim,” said Chapin in an email. “There has to be liability before the insurance carrier would pay a claim.” If a rider crashes and is hurt, that doesn’t automatically create a liability claim or payment.
A change in tone and direction
In a town built around outdoor tourism, whether it’s mountain biking and hiking in the summer or skiing and snowmobiling in the winter, businesses are not only hopeful for, but reliant on accessible open spaces. Though some around Copper Harbor say that they’ve seen riders start traveling to Marquette, Michigan instead because of the closures on advanced trails, they haven’t yet seen a potential for significant impact on the economy.
Jeff Ratcliffe, the executive director of the Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance (KEDA) estimates that Copper Harbor sees about 200,000-250,000 visitors per year. About 200,000 visitors spend a night in Copper Harbor, but tracking day visitors is more difficult. About a third of the estimated 250,000 visitors are mountain bikers, and riders typically spend $300-$500 per visit.
“I think we’ve lost the advanced mountain bikers because the trails that were closed, were the advanced trails, but overall we’re in a visitor economy that just continues to grow,” Ratcliffe told Singletracks.
The Keweenaw Convention and Visitors Bureau says growth in visitors has been incremental over the past several years with only one or two percent increases each year, but there was an 11% increase in overnight visitors in 2021 compared to their last peak in 2019.
John Mueller, the owner of the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge (KML) says the lodge has been filling rooms as usual, but they saw fewer mountain bikers renting rooms this summer.
“That, I think is what changed this year,” said Mueller in an interview. “Our occupancy in our cabins didn’t change from 2020 to 2021. We actually generated more revenue in 2021. It was the number of bikes that were on porches in the cabins that decreased on it.”
The KML, a state, and nationally registered historic place, prides itself on being an unplugged type of resort. Guests must book at least two nights to stay in order to fully feel the relaxed atmosphere of the lodge. The property is butted up against many of the trails including the Downtown trail, and offers access to mountain biking, golfing, and stargazing. Mueller said that the tone in potential visitors has shifted as word of closures has spread.
“And then the feel that we’ve had in terms of our outdoor services people, activity services people having to answer questions about the trails, you know, you get a feel of the voice of people calling and so forth, or having to answer emails and online chats with people asking about the trails being closed there.”
Mueller bought the lodge from Keweenaw County in 2018. In August of 2020, Mueller wanted to revitalize a snow terrain park that sat on both KML and county land and he approached Keweenaw County about an easement for the park. This proposal also sparked the initial examinations of liability on Keweenaw County land, according to Mueller and Piche. Shortly after, Mueller had conversations with the county about purchasing two parcels of land which hold both the snow terrain park and the closed trails. Mueller hoped he would be able to buy the land in the spring of 2021, assume any liability, and keep the mountain bike trails open for the summer, but there was confusion between the KML and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about reverter clauses on the land and whether a private entity could own the parcels. In short, the land sale between the county, the DNR, and the KML didn’t happen and in July the KML pulled their offer.
This fall, Mueller said the DNR approached him again about buying the property and Mueller met with the Keweenaw County Board of Commissioners again on December 6. He’s optimistic that they can work out the reverter clauses and conservation easements. So far, Keweenaw County, the CHTC, and the Keweenaw Outdoor Recreation Coalition approved the agreement and trails and a conservation easement. The parcels would sell for $200,000 each for a total of $400,000.
Mueller met with the DNR on December 16 and the decision will have to be approved by the director, and they will hopefully have a final decision within 30 days.
“That would be awesome because the core crux of the Copper Harbor trails system is built on that 383 acres,” said Mueller.
He hopes the sale would finalize in early 2022 and reopen Flying Squirrel, Danimal, Overflow, and Downtown for the summer, though the final portion of Downtown would still have to be rerouted since it ends on private property where mountain bike access was revoked.
Miller of the CHTC is just as hopeful but wary of more hangups. “Heh, the last several times I thought I knew when that sale was going through we were totally wrong,” he said. “This has been going on for an entire year now.”
Blankets of snow are draped over Copper Harbor’s trails as winter rolls in, effectively adding another layer of closure for the town’s advanced trails. For those trails to reopen in 2022, the land needs to be sold to the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, or the Copper Harbor Trails Club will need to lock down a new insurance policy. Visitors and mountain bikers will continue to roll into town in the summer of 2022, ride the trails, and spend money at local establishments. The CHTC will do their best to make the town an attractive place for mountain bikers, as they’ve done for years, even when the odds are stacked against them.
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