• Wed May 13 2009
  • Posted May 13, 2009
Guthrie Center, IA May 9, 2009 "WOW! Guthrie County Board of Supervisors votes 4-1 to proceed with fundraising to develop 17 miles of new trail along the northern border of the county. It will head west from the Raccoon River Valley Trail at Herndon, and connect to Coon Rapids. It’ll take years, but this is a major step." ~ RRVT Site Fundraising for the development of a new 17-mile recreational trail running near the northern border of Guthrie County has been authorized by the Board of Supervisors with a bold, somewhat surprising 4-1 favorable vote here this week. The $7.5 million project is expected to take years to complete. The yet-unnamed trail would stretch west on a former railroad right-of-way from Herndon, which is on the Raccoon River Valley Trail. The new trail will go from Herndon through Bagley and Bayard to Coon Rapids, which is in the very southeast corner of Carroll County. Already being developed east of Herndon is the “North Loop” of the RRVT, which will travel east through another Guthrie County town, Jamaica. The trails are expected to become a new economic lifeline for all those communities, bringing thousands of people through town every year. There are also national and statewide implications for this new Coon Rapids-Herndon trail. It will connect to the new Whiterock Conservancy, a 4,500-acre land trust that is being opened to the public as a natural preserve and recreation area. Whiterock is located in the northwest corner of Guthrie County, just outside the town of Coon Rapids. The hilly and wooded terrain has the Middle Raccoon River running through it, with great possibilities for canoeing, kayaking, fishing, horseback riding, mountain biking, birdwatching, star gazing at nights, nature study and more. It is expected to become a major destination for eco-tourists in years to come. Also, the new trail has been designated as a part of the American Discovery Trail, a nationwide linkage of trails to form a trans-USA route for bicyclists, walkers, runners, naturalists and other trail users. In addition, this same route is also designated as a part of the statewide trails network established by the Iowa Department of Transportation. What the board specifically authorized is for Guthrie County resident Rachel Garst, who lives adjacent to Whiterock Conservancy and has been one of its leading advocates, to begin seeking appropriations and other grants from the federal government and other sources, to pay for development of the new trail. The county officials made it clear it that their government will be able to contribute very little, if any, funding in the development stage. However, they agreed that if Garst is successful and can find the funding to build the trail, then eventually Guthrie County will take ownership of it and do the operation and maintenance. “What I’m bringing to the table that is sort of unique,” Garst told the supervisors, “is that we have built up a fair amount of political leverage in recent years, especially as we’ve developed Whiterock Conservancy.” The 51-year-old Garst is a member of the legendary Coon Rapids-area family that has donated the land for Whiterock. “We’ve been going to Washington, D.C., for four years, talking to different people, making sure we always contact all the members of the Iowa delegation in the House and Senate,” she said to the supervisors. “Most of that has been for help with Whiterock, and we’ve been successful with that. Every year, they threaten to end all earmarks, and every year they give them out anyway. As long as they’re doing that, we’re foolish not to take advantage of it for good projects here.” She said that the entire Iowa Congressional delegation understands “that this trail connecting from Whiterock east to the Raccoon River Valley Trail is very important to Whiterock. We feel we already have the strong support of (Senators Tom) Harkin and (Charles) Grassley and (Congressman Tom) Latham already. We believe that over the years we have built significant political capital to go back now and ask for help in building this trail.” Part of the right-of-way, from the Bayard area to Coon Rapids, still has an active railroad operating on it, generally to haul for the Poet ethanol plant in that area. The right-of-way is double-wide through that area. Garst said that senior staff members from the offices of Senator Harkin and Congressman Leonard Boswell have offered to join her in meetings with the Burlington Northern Railroad about sharing that right-of-way with a recreational trail. She said that Burlington Northern has allowed similar arrangements for trails along its rail routes elsewhere around the U.S. Garst noted that if she and her allies among trail advocates are successful in their pursuit of federal earmarks and other governmental grants, there will always be a requirement for at least some local matching money. Some of that matching money could come from a pledge of a major land donation she has already secured, for 7.2 miles of the former railroad right-of-way from Herndon to Coon Rapids. She said that nearly 30 years ago, her late father Steve Garst and his friend Roger Koppen, of Jefferson, who is now CEO of the huge Farmers Cooperative Co. based in Farnhamville, Iowa, had a company Shippers Consortium active in the grain elevators along the old rail route. When the railroad was ceasing operations there, Shippers Consortium bought up as much of the right-of-way as possible. “They wanted to hold it for eventual development by somebody as a recreational trail,” Rachel Garst said. “After my father died, Roger has been holding it ever since — paying property taxes on it ever year — just to keep it open for a possible trail. But he’s been telling me in recent years he really wants to get the donation made as soon as possible so that this project can get started.” Garst said the 7.2 miles of right-of-way adds up to a total of about 87 acres of land that has been appraised at $490,000. “Once Roger Koppen makes the donation, we will be able to use that money for the matching funds when we need them,” she said. In open meetings last fall, and in phone conversations in recent weeks, she had talked to the Guthrie County supervisors, and also to the Guthrie County Conservation Board, trying to get their authorization to proceed. Then after a meeting in late April, the conservation board — which owns and operates the 19 miles of the RRVT in the county — told Garst they would not sign the funding request she needed to take to Congress. That’s why Garst took her case to the higher-ranking board of supervisors this week. On Tuesdsay, May 5, she made her case with a 90-minute presentation. A dozen members of the public ringed the board room, and several spoke in favor of the project. Among them were several economic development and business leaders from around Guthrie County. However, Joe Hanner, the county conservation director, told the supervisors that “our conservation board is not going to do anything on this trail — it’s a large project — without significant support from this board (of supervisors) here. Our plate’s full already. We’re providing a lot of recreational opportunities to Guthrie County’s citizens with the miles of trail we already have.” The board tabled the matter, asking for two days to study Garst’s packet of information and get additional public feedback. They reconvened to ask her additional questions on Thursday, May 7. This time more than 15 people attended — including people who own three parcels of property adjacent to the trail — and all seemed to be in favor of the project. Hanner was again the pessimist. At one point, he recited a litany of 12 tasks that he and his staff have to do continually to keep a trail properly maintained and safe, and how expensive that is. “I did a running total and just figured out that if this new trail project materializes, it would be 39 miles of trail we’d have in Guthrie County,” Hanner told the board. “That’s remarkable, and a lot of responsibility. I don’t mean to be negative, but I want to be real.” But just before the board voted, supervisor Larry Laughery asked the members of the public attending the session, “Is there anybody here who is against this?” When there was no answer, he then said he would be voting in favor of it. He then said to Garst: “And let me say to Rachel here, if you’ve got the gumption to take the bull by the horns and run with it — and you’ve demonstrated to this board that you indeed do — then I’m all for you.” Supervisor Jerry Caraher made the motion in favor of proceeding on the fundraising for the trail’s development, saying “it’s a good project.” Laughery then said “my son is going to kill me” but he seconded the motion. Voting in favor were chairman Kevin Wirt, Jim Pedersen, Caraher and Laughery. The lone vote against the project was from Mike Dickson. Garst said she would be filing earmark requests immediately with Senators Harkin and Grassley. 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