Federal grant sparks $2.4 million investment into Flint Hills Nature Trail – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Federal grant sparks $2.4 million investment into Flint Hills Nature Trail

A recent announcement of federal transportation grants may be the light at the end of the trail for volunteers who have worked for years developing the Flint Hills Nature Trail. Earlier this month the Kansas Department of Transportation announced that two of 35 projects included in the federal Transportation Enhancement program will enhance the Flint Hills Nature Trail.

One of those projects, to be administered by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, is expected to pump about $2.4 million into development of the 117-mile rail-trail that traverses seven Kansas counties, including Osage County. The Flint Hills Nature Trail runs from Herington to Osawatomie on an old Missouri Pacific rail line.

According to Linda Craghead, KDWPT Assistant Secretary for Parks and Tourism, it is hoped the funds will finish the trail, sections of which have been gradually developed over the last 20 years or more.

“Our goal is to get it completed,” Craghead said Monday. “This is an opportunity for us to connect some of the rural communities along the Flint Hills Nature Trail corridor, and hopefully gain some economic development along the trail.”

According to KDOT, $1.5 million in federal Transportation Enhancement funds were awarded for the project, with a minimum of 20 percent of the project cost from the applicant. Craghead said the balance of the $2.4 million project will come from funds managed by KWDPT for recreational trails, and contributions from the current trail operator, Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy, which has operated Flint Hills Nature Trail since 2001.

As operators of the Flint Hills Nature Trail and the Landon Nature Trail, KRTC holds the permit for about 40 miles of trail in Osage County. Flint Hills Nature Trail traverses the center of the county from east to west, and Landon Nature Trail comes from the north out of Shawnee County to connect with the Flint Hills Nature Trail right of way east of Pomona Lake. Sections of both trails remain undeveloped in Osage County, although the Flint Hills Nature Trail is mostly traversable across the county by foot, horseback or mountain bike.

A KDOT spokesperson reported the KDWPT project will complete sections of the limestone trail between Osawatomie and Herrington, and construct six full trailheads and 11 half trailheads along the route.

Contacted Tuesday, Scott Allen, president of KRTC, said that although the organization had been involved in application for the federal transportation funds since last year, the announcement of the grant was a “dream come true” for the group’s members.

“We’re extremely excited about this. We were very excited to hear about it,” Allen said.

He said many KRTC members have been working for years on the trail, not knowing if or when it would ever be completed.

“It’s unbelievable,” Allen said. “When the current group took over in 2001, we didn’t know how much we’d be able to get done. We just followed our motto, ‘build trail’. We just kept pushing forward to keep building trail.

“To have this come along, complete the trail, it’s a dream come true, when we had no idea how much we’d get done when we started.”

He said about half of Flint Hills Nature Trail is completed, so far all done with volunteer labor and private donations.

“The volunteers have just been phenomenal,” Allen said. “People have donated their time, money and equipment. They’ve donated chunks of their life to this trail.”

Craghead and Allen both said that with announcement of the grant, plans are just now being developed for the improvements. Craghead said it was possible for the project to begin by early fall. Allen said there was hope the trail could be completed in a little more than a year from now.

“If possible, we would love to see this all done by September 2014, that’s our goal,” he said.

Allen said that in addition to building trailheads, the primary work to be completed is laying limestone gravel in some sections and improving road crossings.

“Our goal is to complete everything that needs to be done from Osawatomie to Herington,” he said. “We’re hoping this will physically complete the trail.”

Craghead said the full trailheads will be located in the major communities along the trail, such as Osage City, Ottawa, Council Grove and Herington, with a goal of enhancing economic development in those communities. Half trailheads will be scattered along the trail.

“I hope the communities will start seeing benefits, and start developing amenities along trail, so they can help support travelers on the trail,” Craghead said.

She said the trail will have a strong tourism draw, attracting people who want to experience life in Kansas.

“If they stay at a local bed and breakfast, they get to interact with local people – not only places,” she said. “These are real people looking for real things, real discussions and real opportunities. They’ll not only discover what Kansas life is like, they’ll be back.”

Craghead confirmed that sections of the trail in Osage County will be included in the project, saying all communities along the trail should benefit from its completion.

“Your area is very much a piece of that,” Craghead said. “When it comes right down to it, we want [trail users] stopping at Osage City and spending their money there.”

Craghead said the transportation grant is part of a larger plan for economic development along the trail. She said KDWPT had recently secured a $170,050 USDA Rural Enterprise grant “that will help us develop businesses in communities along the Flint Hills Nature Trail corridor.”

She said the program will make funds available to assist businesses along the trail.

“The grant is designed to help spark additional business development,” Craghead said, noting the same USDA grant will assist businesses along the Kansas River Trail, which was designated as a National Water Trail last summer.

“It’s a matter of success breeds success,” Craghead said. “The goal is to get a nice trail that our state can be proud of and visitors will want to experience.”

Another project announced in the Transportation Enhancement grants will also benefit the Flint Hills Nature Trail, although indirectly, by providing a connection to Council Grove’s trail system. The Council Grove project will build a shared use path 1,200 feet long that will connect the city’s existing River Walk Trail to the Flint Hills Nature Trail. Along with a 1,600-foot extension of the existing River Walk Trail, the estimated cost of that project is $397,000 with about $317,000 coming from the federal government.

Allen said plans are now being made to use the federal funds as efficiently as possible. And even if takes another year or so to complete the trail, it will be soon enough for the KRTC.

“To see it happen sooner than later is just fantastic,” Allen said.

For more information about the Flint Hills Nature Trail, see http://kanzatrails.org.

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