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New rec trail coming to region

SPIRIT LAKE, Iowa -- The old railroad that runs from Allendorf to Superior isn't really an economic driver.

But it could be.

The Osceola County Conservation Board and Dickinson County Trails Board have partnered to turn the 37-mile stretch of railway near Iowa 9 into an interim recreational trail and wildlife preserve.

"Other places, such as Minnesota, have found trails coming through small rural towns have created a real industry to serve those populations using the trails," said Steve Litts, executive director of the Dickinson County Trails Board. "Restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and bicycle shops have sprung up and thrived. The research has shown that it depends a lot upon how rural towns respond and how entrepreneurial these folks get. It can be really successful."

Rail banking through the Federal Surface Transportation Board will preserve the land for reactivation as a railroad with interim use as a public trail. The completed trail will link the Ed Winkel Memorial Trail in Osceola County to the Dickinson County Trails System.

The project was approved by both counties' board of supervisors on Tuesday, and the groups are now purchasing about 450 acres of land from the Iowa Northwestern Railroad for $855,000.

The trail will be funded by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation with state and federal grants. And because the land value was originally assessed at the higher price of $1.2 million, the county won't have any out-of-pocket expenses for the project.

"We're going to try to start doing some construction of the surface using crushed limestone as a base, so you could run a mountain bike on it. That could start just about anytime," explained Ron Spengler, executive director of the Osceola County Conservation Board.

"You'll be able to jump on a bike at Spirit Lake or Superior and go all the way to Sibley; that's our goal for right now," Spengler added.

The rail-to-trail will begin in Sibley and run through Allendorf, Ocheyedan, Harris, Lake Park and Montgomery before crossing the concentration of Dickinson County's trails in Spirit Lake and extending east to Superior.

By 2020, the limestone on the railroad tracks should be fully surfaced with concrete.

The two groups will restore the remaining land -- 50 feet on either side of the rail bed -- to its native condition, with some money for seeds coming from the Osceola County Sportsmans Club.

"All of that will be planted to native prairie wildflowers and grasses. In some cases it hasn't been encroached upon; some of it remains as native prairie, which is really rare in Iowa or anywhere in the country," Spengler said. "Pheasants Forever in Osceola and Dickinson County are really supportive of this project because it will add a lot to the wildlife habitat.

"This is tremendous. I can't believe it," he continued. "It's not going to be corn and soybeans you're looking at; it's going to be native pheasants and wildlife. It's going to be really significant for northwest Iowa."

"It has a lot to offer," Litts said of the area. "We won't do it tomorrow, but we'd like to get some signage out there so people can stop and actually know what they're looking at." The area has some unique features, including the presence of fens, a rare type of wetland.

Public hunting will also be available on some of the acquired land.

Litts said the trail will add to what's already been an exciting summer for the Dickinson County Trails Board. The board now has a Web site, and Aug. 1 marked its inaugural ride north to Jackson County via the Loon Lake Trail.

"One of our goals when we formed three and a half years ago was to connect to our neighboring counties to the north, south, east and west, and with this we'll be able to connect with two of those four. ... It will take our total dedicated trail miles from about 23 miles in our county to 43," Litts said.

"(Using trails is) an activity that's very low cost and it's family oriented," Litts added. "One of the things that gives me a lot of pleasure is seeing moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas out on the trail with kids. It's good seeing other kinds of recreational activities here in the Great Lakes."

On the Web:

Dickinson County Trails Board

Osceola County Conservation Board