BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
MONTROSE – A coalition kicked off efforts today at the Lee County Conversation District office near Montrose to look at future trail systems in Lee, Hancock, and Clark Counties.
About 30 Lee County residents and media met at the LCCD office at Heron Bend Tuesday afternoon to talk about the future of trails in Lee County. Another gathering was scheduled for Clark and Hancock counties Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.
Shelley Oltmans, of the Keokuk Area Chamber of Commerce and ISU Extension, kicked off the meeting indicating the efforts are coming out of the SET program, which is the United States Department of Agriculture’s Stronger Economies Together program. The program is aimed at strengthening communities and counties by helping facilitate economic blueprints for rural areas.
Brian Leaders, a landscape architect with the National Parks Service, directed the conversation and pointed out the benefits of a trail system. He spoke of a variety of trails including hard surface, which would include everything from gravel to concrete, soft surfaces such as dirt and grass, shared surfaces which are used by bicycle and motorists and water trails for canoes, kayaks, and tubing.
As part of the program, those in attendance were seated at five different tables with maps and markers and the people at each table were asked to draw on the maps with a pink marker where they would like to see hard trails, a green marker where they could see soft trails.
“We’re going to take this at the 30,000 foot level at the beginning. What we don’t want to hear is someone at the table say, ‘Oh, there’s a big hill there and no one’s gonna want to bike or hike up that hill’,” he said. “Let’s say there’s no cost factor in this. Draw the trails where you would like to see them. This is nothing more than you guys telling the rest of the people in your community where you would like to see trails.”
He said the maps will not be made available to the public until public officials have seen them.
He also talked about the benefits of trails aside from the health benefits. He said quality of life, recreation, education, crime reduction, and economic gain are just a few of the ways trails are benefiting rural and urban midwestern communities.
But he said education has seen some of the biggest dynamic impact from trails
“Education has become one of the biggest uses of trails in the last five years. Trails within the larger communities and near schools, we’re starting to find teachers are taking students out on trails. And the reason they’re doing that is because the cost of fuel and using the bus is pretty expensive. Most schools don’t have that budget anymore. Teachers can’t take science class, load up on the bus, and take them down to the river for an outdoor classroom.
“If there’s a trail in close proximity they’ll take the kids, hop on a trail, and go where they need to go.”
He said Council Bluffs is a good example of how an abandoned rail line was converted to a trail in a lower income section of the town.
“The neighbors were opposed to the trail. They didn’t want it. They didn’t want more people coming into the neighborhood and causing more crime. The trail went forward. They went in and cut the weeds, cleared out the trees, and put in a trail and what they realized after three years is that there are more people in the area on the trail in the middle income bracket using their cellphones and crime has been reduced by 50% in that neighborhood.”
Montrose resident Rich Harlow asked if they can use eminent domain to acquire trail property. Leaders said it is currently illegal to use eminent domain to purchase trail property so plans go around property that isn’t authorized for use, or groups can look at purchasing the land.
Leaders services to the county are paid for by the National Park Service in the form of a technical assistance grant.
“There’s no money in this grant right now. We’re just providing the technical assistance to get things going,” Leaders said. “The next step will probably be to get back together in September or October and do this again.”
Leaders said he would be working with the counties for probably another year to help finalize plans. He told the group that at that point a steering committee would probably be assembled and would be comprised of land owners, farmers, real estate developers, community organizers and residents, and technical support people to help the project take shape.
He said the best sources for funding of trails are federal and state recreation grants and Regional T.A.P. or Transportation Alternative Program grants. He said hard surface trails can run close to $300K per mile and bridges can run up to $900 per linear foot, so fundraising will be an important part of the program.
Oltmans reminded the participants to think connectivity.
“Also you could connect over to the other counties. “If you know those connections – be it Athens State Park – be it other opportunities, provide us with what information you have and know and like and we’ll take that with us,” she said.