MONTROSE — The Lee County Conservation Board parking lot was full Tuesday as about 20 southeast Iowa residents turned up to participate in the first of what will be many planning sessions for county trails and routes within three counties.
The goal is to plan and eventually create routes that connect Lee County, Clark County, Missouri, and Hancock County, Illinois, communities along the Mississippi River Trail — a designated bicycle and pedestrian trail that spans the shores of the Mississippi River from Minnesota down to Louisiana. Much of the trail shares or follows roadways used by motor vehicles, but communities can change that by creating their own routes that not only are more pedestrian-friendly, but also bring trail users into towns and near local businesses.
There to guide residents through the trail planning process was Brian Leaders, a landscape architect with the National Parks Service's Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program for the Midwest region. Among the program's goals is to help communities find new routes along the MRT.
The Lee County Conservation Board applied for the program about 10 months ago at the suggestion of Keokuk Chamber of Commerce Director Shelley Oltmans.
"If you look at the trails in southeast Iowa, they're very limited in comparison to central Iowa," said Lee County Conservation Board Director Nathan Unsworth. "Bringing that to southeast Iowa would bring more ecotourism and encourage people to be healthier."
Leaders began by explaining the benefits of trails in the area. They provide educational opportunities for schools, reduce crime rates and some, but not all, bring with them economic gain through ecotourism. They decrease state health care costs by promoting physical activity, and they provide alternative transportation options, such as cycling and even kayaking.
It was the water trail prospect that appealed most to Keokuk resident Kotch Belmonti, who used to live in Alaska and "kayaked from hut to hut." She would like to see more kayak ramps at river access points and at Keokuk's two boat clubs as well as campgrounds along the river for kayakers.
A separate meeting for water trail planning will be held in the fall.
Clay Steele, a Lee County Conservation naturalist who lives in Fort Madison, would like longer, safe trails his 7-year-old daughter and other children could use for longer bike rides as well as a safe route he could use to bike to work, though he expressed concern about land acquisitions.
"Even one property owner can stop a trail," he said.
Trails aren't cheap, as they can cost up to $300,000 per square mile, and the question of funding came up early on in Leaders' presentation.
Trail projects can be funded through public funding, which can be anything from corporate giving to individual gifts to in-kind donations and usually requires some kind of match. There also are public grant programs, such as State and Federal Recreational Trails grants and the Regional Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP). Grant programs typically come with costly requirements, however, and can drive up the trail cost by 25 percent.
"If we got into the details of how much this would cost, it would never get done," Leaders told the group before they began working in teams to mark desired routes on large maps, using green to indicate soft-surface, or grassy, trails and pink markers to indicate hard-surface trails.
Bill Mullan, who lives in Fort Madison and serves on the conservation board, wants to see more hard-surface trails as they are better for walkers and roller bladers. The group he was working with made a note to check into abandoned railroad lines as they would make for ideal trail routes.
The maps will be used to see which routes are most desired. After that, a steering committee will be formed to help guide the process and conduct listening sessions.
As part of the multi-county initiative, Leaders visited the Kahoka, Missouri, Fire Department Tuesday evening and will be at Carthage, Illinois, City Hall at 9 a.m. today.