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Nebraska Rural Trails: Three Studies of Trail Impact

Documenting the impact of Nebraska’s developing trail system, using surveys to learn more about usage patterns, public safety, property values, and community quality of life along three rural rail-trails.

Download full study: Nebraska Rural Trails: Three Studies of Trail Impact (pdf 760 kb)

By Donald L. Greer, Ph.D., University of Nebraska at Omaha

Executive Summary

As pointed out in A Network of Discovery: A Comprehensive Trails Plan for the State of Nebraska (1994), trails have played a central role in Nebraska’s history. The Oregon, California, Mormon, and Pony Express Trails were central to the development of early cross-country communications networks and the opening and settlement of the American West. Though long ago replaced by the Union Pacific sector of the transcontinental railroad, and later by the Lincoln Highway (US 30) and Interstate 80, the authors of A Network of Discovery rightly pointed out in their report that the historic trail corridors of Nebraska still remain relevant to our lives today, albeit in somewhat different roles:

“Trails are now assuming other roles by emerging as important recreational and transportation arteries for people. Protected trail corridors help people rejuvenate themselves through fitness activities and contact with their environment, offer safe alternative routes for people to commute between home, school, workplace, and shopping, reduce traffic congestion and energy consumption, and preserve wildlife habitats.” (A Network of Discovery, p. 1)

And the authors of this vision for Nebraska’s future trail system went on to suggest a more nuanced approach to viewing the benefits of a statewide trail system.

“There is also a dimension to the development of trails in Nebraska that transcends recreation and transportation… Trails, then, offer opportunities for both recreation and discovery of ourselves and our state.” (A Network of Discovery, p. 2)

Since the creation of Nebraska’s comprehensive trail plan, A Network of Discovery in 1994, trail development has continued to move forward, particularly in the major cities of Omaha and Lincoln. From a complete absence of recreational trails and greenways in early 1989, Omaha has developed a system that today contains approximately 67 miles of paved recreational trails, and another 35 miles of trails are scheduled for completion within the next eight years. Trail development has been even more rapid in Nebraska’s capitol city of Lincoln. Yet evidence concerning the impact of recreational trails remains largely anecdotal, both in Nebraska and nationwide, even as pockets of opposition continue to challenge trail managers and developers to justify trail resource expenditures.

The authors of Nebraska’s trail plan suggested in 1994 that the State should develop a trail system that would have multiple benefits, including recreation and fitness, economic development, improved community image and quality, environmental education and preservation, and community development and transportation:

“The creation of recreational opportunities is central to trails development; however, the system should have benefits beyond recreation. These benefits and roles... include transportation, education, family experience, health and safety, and economic development.” (A Network of Discovery, p. 9)

Seven years later, as that system continues to evolve, it seems worthwhile to assess our progress in realizing these benefits. To this end, this research examined the perceived impact of the existing trail system among small town residents, rural property owners, and rural and small town business owners along four targeted trail segments on the Cowboy, Oak Creek, MoPac East, and Wabash Trace trails. Using mail survey methodology, we asked these citizens about their level of support and use of the trails, as well as the trails’ impact on a wide variety of issues, including public safety, local transportation, property values, economic activity and general community identity and pride. Responses were obtained from a total of 255 small town residents, 128 rural property owners, and 83 businesses along the four trails. For organizational purposes, our results are presented in three separate sections: Small Town Residents, Rural Property Owners, and Business Owners.

We found that small town residents and business owners generally expressed stronger support for trails, and used the trails more often, than rural property owners. They also reported higher levels of trail benefits at the personal, family and community levels, and expressed greater optimism about the trails’ economic impact, influence on community pride, and a variety of other issues. A much higher percentage of these respondents felt that the trails were better neighbors than the railroads that preceded them. In general, our respondents did not report widespread concerns about trail-related crime and vandalism, and saw most trail maintenance as acceptable or better, with rural property owners excepted. Although most of the business owners did not report a direct positive impact on their businesses due to the trails, they expected the trails to contribute to general business activity in their communities, especially in the long run.

With respect to the trails’ impact on recreational and physical activity, our results suggest that the trails are contributing at least modestly to an increase in outdoor activity and physical activity levels among Nebraska citizens. Our respondents most frequently rated exposure to nature and the outdoor environment as the most important reasons for using the trails, followed closely by improved health and fitness through exercise.

Finally, our results include numerous comparisons of the four trails on each of the issues of interest. Due to the variety of issues and comparisons involved, generalizations are difficult to summarize succinctly, but at the very least it may be said that respondents near the MoPac East and Wabash Trace trails had a tendency to be more supportive of trails than those near the Cowboy and Oak Creek Trails. These differences may be attributable to a number of factors, including respondent demographics and trail maturity.

Trail Selection

To cover the widest possible range of rural trails, criteria were first established for the inclusion of specific targeted rural trail segments. First we sought to include both trails that had some suburban homes included as well as trails that went through rural property as well as small towns in both Nebraska and Iowa. Second, we sought to include trails that are connected or may be connected to the American Discovery Trail System. Within the Nebraska and Iowa system as of 2001, four trail segments met these criteria and were selected for inclusion in this project. All four trails are similar in their general physical characteristics and recreational potential i.e.: they are constructed with crushed limestone as their base and the trails allow walking, bicycling, running/jogging, mountain biking, and cross country skiing. Limited equestrian use is allowed in certain areas, but motorized use is not allowed on these trails.

The Wabash-Trace Trail

The Wabash-Trace Trail (Map 1) runs for 63 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa. To Blanchard, Missouri. We chose to study the segment from Council Bluffs to Malvern, Iowa, a distance of 21.9 miles. The trail runs along the Loess Hills of western Iowa. There is a parallel horse path from Council Bluffs to Mineola. There are three towns along this segment: Mineola, Silver City and Malvern. There are many small river and creek crossings, which explains why there is a staggering number of bridges, seventy-three at last count, that are along the entire length of the Wabash-Trace Trail. Currently the trail is not connected to any other trail system in Iowa but that could change in the future as the new Nebraska-Iowa footbridge is built across the Missouri river. On completion of this bridge, the Wabash-Trace could quite possibly connect with the City of Omaha’s trail system. The Southwest Iowa Nature Trails Project Corporation currently owns and operates the Wabash-Trace Trail.

The Mo-Pac East Trail

The Mo-Pac East trail (Map 2) extends 25 miles from 84th Street in Lincoln, Nebraska, east to Wabash, Nebraska. There is a parallel equestrian trail that runs from 98th Street in Lincoln to the town of Elmwood. The Mo-Pac East connects with the 84th Street terminus of Lincoln’s 60-mile trail network. The Mo-Pac East goes through the communities of Walton, Eagle, Elmwood and Wabash. Three of these towns were included in our study. The trail will eventually extend to the Platte River Connection, a two million dollar bridge over the Platte River, currently under construction and scheduled for completion in 2002. Once the bridge is complete there are plans for the Mo-Pac East trail to link with the Omaha trail network. In the future one will be able to go from Omaha to Lincoln, a distance of forty-six plus miles, on the Mo-Pac East Trail. The Mo-Pac East Trail was an active rail line until 1984 when the then Missouri-Pacific Railroad abandoned the rail corridor.

The Oak Creek Trail

The Oak Creek Trail (Map 3) runs 12 miles from Valparaiso, Nebraska to one mile south of Brainard, Nebraska. The trail runs along natural prairie grass, majestic oak woodlands and highland vistas. The corridor was once occupied by the Union Pacific Railroad but was taken out of service, using the Federal Rail Bank process in 1993. The Lower Platte South Natural Resources District also currently manages this trail. The trail passes through two small towns, Valparaiso and Loma, Nebraska (filming site for “To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything!"- Julie Newmar). The trail ends 1 mile south of Brainard. There are plans for its extension into Brainard.

The Cowboy Trail

The Cowboy Trail (Map 4) is the Nation’s longest rail to trail conversion, a total of 321 miles when completed; it is Nebraska’s first State Recreational Trail to be donated to the state by Rails to Trails Conservancy on December 5, 1994. The historic Chicago and Northwestern Railroad right of way, now the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, passes through spectacular scenery as it travels from Norfolk, Nebraska west through the Elkhorn River valley and will eventually end in Chadron, Nebraska, in Nebraska’s Sandhills area. Currently there are only 47 miles of the 321 miles completed, with the longest completed segment of 34 miles running from Norfolk to Neligh, Nebraska. This 34-mile segment of the trail is the segment we elected to study for our research project. The segment starts on the western outskirts of Norfolk and goes through the communities of Battle Creek, Meadow Grove, Tilden, Oakdale and ends on the western edge of Neligh.
The city of Norfolk is planning a 2-mile extension of the trail so that the eastern terminus of the Cowboy Trail will begin in a Norfolk city park instead of out on the edge of Norfolk. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission currently manages the trail. When the trail is completed it will have 221 bridges and pass through 29 communities.

Conclusions and Discussion

The purpose of this research was to investigate the impact of the existing trail system among Nebraska and Iowa’s small town residents, rural property owners, and rural and small town business owners. Based on the responses to a total of 466 mail surveys from four targeted trail segments on the Cowboy, Oak Creek, MoPac East, and Wabash Trace trails, we shall summarize our findings in a number of specific areas, including participation in trail development, support for the trail over time, trail maintenance, conditions and crime, the trails’ influence on self, family and community, economics and property values, and trail use.

As the reader of this report may already have observed, a theme that will appear throughout these conclusions is the marked difference of opinion expressed by rural property owners. This difference obviously makes simple generalizations about our results more difficult, and it seems appropriate to comment on differences we observed in each group’s responses as we progress through each respective issue.

1. Participation in Trail Development

Active involvement in trail planning and development was generally reported by about one in ten households responding to our surveys, with lower rates (6.2%) among small town residents, and slightly higher rates of involvement (14.6%) reported by rural property owners. Attendance at trail-planning meetings was also higher among this group, with 35.8 percent of them reporting that a member of their household had attended a trail-planning meeting, while this was true of only 19 percent of small town residents. Consistent with this is the tendency of rural property owners to be somewhat better informed about trail development than small town residents. These results may simply indicate that there are higher levels of interest in land use issues among rural property owners.

2. Support for the Trail Over Time

With the exception of rural property owners, the majority of rural Nebraska and Iowa residents are generally supportive of the rail-to-trail conversion process. Our data also indicate that support tends to be the weakest during the trail planning and construction phase, and reaches a high point at or near the time of trail completion. Opposition to trail development is clearly much stronger among rural property owners, where the level of support approaches the level of opposition only after trail completion. Among all three groups of respondents the level of trail opposition tends to remain relatively constant after a slight drop when planning begins, suggesting that trail developers have had more success at generating support among the undecided and uninformed, as opposed to changing the minds of early trail opponents.

3. Trail Maintenance, Conditions and Crime

Our respondents again had noticeably different opinions about trail maintenance practices along rural trails, with rural property owners reporting more serious problems than small town residents. Weed control and mowing were of greatest concern, as this comment by one rural property owner illustrates:

“I have to mow the ditch to keep weeds down. I have to pick up the trash and have dogs running loose. The dog and mowing problems need to be addressed. I live on the trail, farm near the trail and I have livestock near trail.”

But another rural property owner offered that:

“They spray for noxious weeds and keep the trail mowed. Railroads sprayed with machines which the weed killer drifted.”

By and large, our data indicate that a minority of rural and small town citizens expressed concerns about increased levels of crime due to trail development. Such concerns were, however, expressed far more often by rural property owners, with trespassing and illegal motorized use the most frequent complaints. One property owner commented that:

“When a person was on the railroad it was considered trespassing. Now persons can use it as means of access to our property. More activity— people— vehicles, snowmobiles, vandalism.”

In contrast, another rural resident said:

“Trail allows children to ride bikes without worrying about traffic. No more train traffic/noise on the trails”.

A similar difference of opinion between small town residents and rural property owners was expressed with regard to a number of personal or nuisance issues. While the majority of our respondents reported no significant change in the amount of rude trail users, noise, and roaming pets, one benefit observed disproportionately by small town residents was an increase in social interactions. Alternatively, the majority of rural property owners expressed concerns about a loss of privacy due to trail conversion. As one rural property owner observed:

“The trail makes our private yard public. We built into section for seclusion and privacy.”

A number of items in our survey dealt with trail impact issues we have labeled aesthetic/experiential and health/recreation. We again discovered noteworthy differences of opinion between small town residents and rural property owners. Consistent with their position on several other issues, the rural property owner group was far more skeptical about the existence of positive trail impacts, while the small town residents said with far greater frequency that the trails had improved natural space preservation, opportunities for nature education, health and fitness, and recreation opportunities.

4. Trail’s Influence on Self, Family and Community

A substantial percentage of Nebraska and Iowa residents believe that the trails have had a positive impact on life in their community. This perspective was shared by all groups of respondents, including the rural property owners, and positive opinions exceed negative ones about trail impact in nearly every case. It is interesting to note that all groups of respondents generally saw more positive impacts as the frame of reference for this question expanded beyond their own life. Although the rural property owners again expressed more skepticism than business owners and small town residents, more of them were actually positive than negative about the overall community and countywide impact of trails.

One rural property owner along the MoPac East Trail observed:

“We have horses and wanted to be close to the trail to ride. It provides a beautiful outlet for many activities- running, walking, biking and horseback riding. It is wonderful.”

One curiously incongruous finding revealed by our data is the seeming failure of the trails’ positive community impact to translate into trail satisfaction among the rural property owners. In a return to the previous theme of skepticism among that group, we found that 42 percent of them were dissatisfied with the trails, while this was true of only 12 percent of small town residents and 10 percent of business owners.

When asked specifically about the trails’ impact on community pride, almost 60 percent of the small town residents believed that the trails resulted in an increase, but this was true of only 26 percent of rural property owners.

5. Economics and Property Values

Nebraska and Iowa residents generally did not perceive the trails to be of direct economic benefit to them by increasing their residential, rural, or business property values (Figures 1-9, 2-9 and 3-6), but they were much more optimistic about the general impact of trails on community wide economic opportunity. While over 40 percent of small town residents expected economic opportunities to grow due to trails, only 11.5 percent of rural property owners had that expectation. However 57 percent of nearby business owners expected the trails to improve general business activity in the short term, and over two-thirds of them expected business activity due to trails to grow in the next five years.

With respect to actual property purchase decisions, of those respondents who had actually purchased residential or rural property since the completion of the trails in their area, we found that few of them reported that the trails had a negative influence, while about 25 percent said that the trails were an attraction. This was true for both small town residents and rural property owners.

6. Trail Use

In a previous investigation of urban and suburban trails, we found that 85.2 percent of the households adjacent to Omaha recreational trails had a household trail user (Greer, 2000). The data from the current three studies indicate that rural trails, though not as frequently used, are used at least occasionally by a relatively high percentage of nearby residents. This was especially true of small town residents, where our results indicated that 73.6 percent of the households had a trail user. Much like the previous urban/suburban findings, we also discovered that trail usage varied somewhat from trail to trail, with the Wabash and MoPac having higher rates of use than the Oak Creek and Cowboy trails.

Our rural property owner respondents did not use the trails as often as the small town residents however, with only 44.9 percent of the households reporting that a trail user was in residence. The low usage rate in this group was influenced considerably by an extremely low usage rate (21.1%) among rural property owners adjacent to the Cowboy Trail. Both residential and property owner usage frequencies were clearly lowest near the Cowboy and Oak Creek trails.

Our results for the business owners are not strictly comparable due to the use of a shorter survey form, but approximately half of them indicated that they or their employees sometimes use the trails recreationally. This was mostly after-work use, with before work and break time usage occurring much less frequently.

Finally, the use of the trails for alternative transportation remains a relatively infrequent event in rural Nebraska and Iowa, with less than 10 percent of residents and property owners reporting even occasional transportation-related trail use.

7. Outdoor Recreation Priorities- In hopes of better understanding the values and priorities of the respondents, and possibly explaining their trail usage patterns, we asked our small town residents and rural property owners to rate the importance of a number of possible reasons for engaging in outdoor recreation. The relative priorities of both groups were quite similar, with the highest priorities assigned to nature and outdoor experiences, as well as to relaxation and health maintenance. It is interesting to note that culture and exploration, two important ingredients in Nebraska’s A Network of Discovery trail plan, were assigned relatively low importance by these rural respondents. Just as interesting are the consistent differences in priorities that surfaced when we divided the respondents into those with and without a family trail user. From these results it would seem that a lack of family trail use is strongly related to a relatively low interest in general outdoor recreation participation.

Discussion

Although most of what we have learned from this research is undoubtedly good news for trail developers and managers, perhaps the most striking feature of our data is the rather substantial contrast between the way the Nebraska and Iowa trails are viewed by rural property owners versus small town residents and business owners. An awareness of the issues of loss of privacy, noise, vandalism etc., among adjacent property owners is not new to the trails literature, and previous researchers addressed these same issues nearly a decade ago (National Park Service, 1992). To give due credit, the authors of A Network of Discovery anticipated many of the concerns we have found among rural property owners, including

  • Concern about trespassing and lack of privacy, damage to property,
    littering, or noise caused by trail users;
  • Fear of increased crime
  • Assumption of liability for injury to trail users, and
  • Economic concerns, including fear of loss of property value. (p. 117)

Unfortunately, our results for Nebraska and Iowa trails are not unambiguously consistent with previous findings suggesting that “…the opening of the trail actually decreased the level of negative effects.” Nor do they fully support the hope that such problems may “...disappear after a trail is developed” (p. 117). In fact, in the case of our rural property owners, we found that our respondents expressed higher levels of negative effects than most previous research would have predicted.

This divergence may well be due to differences between the rural cultural and political values of Nebraskans versus those in other locales where previous research was conducted. Perhaps rural Nebraskans are more sensitive than adjacent landowners elsewhere about privacy, individual property rights, and the legitimacy of government involvement in recreation.

It should also be noted that the apparent severity of our findings is, at least to a small extent, a methodological artifact of the adjacent property owners we selected for analysis. We included only those who could view the trails from their homes, a group that would likely be the most vulnerable to loss of privacy, noise, and other trail-related intrusions

In “A Vision for Nebraska Trails”, the authors of Nebraska’s A Network of Discovery trail plan, proposed five basic principles to guide future trail development:

  1. The system should be statewide.
  2. The system should benefit a wide variety of users.
  3. The system should have multiple benefits.
  4. The system should create economic opportunities.
  5. The system should provide many levels of meaning and experience.

It may be many years before we can fully assess the degree to which the Nebraska Trail System fulfills each of these principles. But central to the plan is the concept that a system of interconnected trails should be developed for the state:

“Yet, a trails system for Nebraska should be statewide in scope, providing facilities for all parts of the state, not just the most heavily populated areas. Such a network will foster regional contacts among all Nebraskans and will make the state more accessible to visitors.” (p. 9)

In the seven years since A Network of Discovery was written, many miles of trail have been developed in Nebraska. The results of this and previous work (Greer, 2000) would suggest that the major successes of the plan to date lie in the widespread acceptance and use of the trails in places where people live together— in Nebraska’s cities and smaller communities. But the process of linking the various “hubs” of local trails together into a system that will bring the plan to full fruition will be a critical challenge, and the largest potential obstacle to its success. In some sense this process of connecting the local trail hubs together appears to be creating contested terrain, where that complex web of features and meanings that defines rural Nebraska is open to debate and reinterpretation. For some rural Nebraskans, this is obviously an uncomfortable process, but to others the trails have already brought new opportunities and meanings to life.

“Usage, the view much better than walking in the neighborhood, stress relieved, healthy.”
— Mo-Pac East Landowner

“Railroad ran trains past our house— noisy— then just rocks for several years— now fully enjoy biking and walking on the trail.”
—Mo-Pac East Landowner

Download full study: Nebraska Rural Trails: Three Studies of Trail Impact (pdf 760 kb)

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