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New trails on the way

SPIRIT LAKE, Iowa -- Northwest Iowa will trade some of its rails for trails after a landmark purchase of almost 40 miles of abandoned railroad land in Osceola and Dickinson counties, which will eventually be reworked into a biking and walking trail connecting the two counties just north of 140th Street.

"We see it as a very positive thing for the area," said Steve Litts, executive director of the Dickinson County Trails Board. "It has a potential for people with that entrepreneurial spirit in our rural towns to start businesses that can be real economic builders for that community, and there are many examples around the country where trails going through small towns have nurtured a real boom in the economy."

The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation purchased the land from John Larkin, owner of Iowa Northwestern Railroad and General Railway Corp., for $855,126. The Dickinson County Trails Board and the Osceola County Conservation Board, which take care of the trails in their respective counties, will then purchase the land from the Heritage Foundation using money from federal grants.

So far, the groups have $525,000 in grant money and will continue applying for federal grants until they can pay back the entire cost of the land to the Heritage Foundation.

When a railroad requests permission of a federal regulatory board to abandon its rail banking, a nonprofit or government agency can then request permission to negotiate to buy the land for the sole purpose of putting in a recreational trail. The request for abandonment is put aside for the trail to be built, but the railroad can purchase it back again at a later date.

"Right now we're working on grants to get the property purchased and also working on getting the scrap railroad ties out," Litts said, noting the good ties and rails had already been removed, and the rest stacked up along the railroad bed.

Once those ties are removed, people will be able to hike along the trail, but it will not be finished with either gravel or blacktop for a long time.

"This will be a long-term effort because it still costs... around $200,000 a mile to put down a trail on top of it," Litts said. Without a railroad bed, trails cost approximately $350,000 a mile.

Three bridges along the trail also cause complications.

"We have good strong bridges out there, three of them, but it's not good to try to bicycle over railroad ties," Litts said. "We need to get a bed down on that and guardrails on each side so it's safe for folks.

"I would think we would get that done maybe next summer, when everything else is in place, but people will be able to actually ride down the trail this summer. It just won't be as smooth a ride as it will be when it's all done, and they won't be able to go across the bridges. So there will be some limitations," Litts added.

The trail has three possible grant sources -- two federal and one state -- but because of the budget, Iowa opted not to fund its recreational trails program this year, Litts said, leaving only the federal sources. That money is in high demand.

The trail will likely cost more than $7 million before it is complete.

Litts sees the money as an investment into the local economy. In Dickinson County alone about 70,000 people use the trails each year, and many of those people are possible customers for local bed and breakfast operations, resorts, bicycle shops and restaurants.

"The resort owners that I talked to are telling me more people are coming to their resorts with bicycles, and I also had inquiries from resorts about using electric scooters on the trails for people who come here who have physical handicaps and need assistance," Litts said.

Some people bike to work using the trail systems, even as far as Jackson.