Nebraska's Cowboy Trail faces a long comeback road
Eight months after massive floods in Nebraska washed out chunks of one of the nation's longest stretches of trail, crews are still trying to repair the scenic pathway used by hikers, bikers and horse riders.
The 195-mile-long Cowboy Trail through northern Nebraska was severely damaged during the March floods, and repair costs are estimated to top $7.7 million, according to a recent state budget request submitted to Gov. Pete Ricketts.
At least 10 points along the trail were hit, including one 100-foot-long section blown out by the water.
"It'll be a good year and a half, maybe two years, before things really get rolling and we get everything fixed," said Alex Duryea, recreational trails manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Most of the money will come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but state officials may have to cover $1.9 million of the expense.
State officials may be able to cover some of the cost with other federal trail grants, but it's not clear how much money Nebraska might receive. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has requested $187,000 from lawmakers in a budget request unveiled last month. Ricketts and lawmakers will decide whether to authorize the funding in the next legislative session that begins Jan. 8.
State officials created the trail from an old, abandoned railroad line, a practice many local governments and nonprofits have adopted to brighten their communities. The trails are a big draw for bicyclists, runners, dog-walkers and others, and some small towns have used them to attract visitors.
The Cowboy Trail stretches from Norfolk in the state's northeast corner to Valentine, in the middle of remote, north-central Nebraska. State officials eventually hope to extend it to Chadron in northwest Nebraska, making it the nation's longest rail-trail.
Once completed, the full trail will run 321 miles through a scenic region of grass-covered sand dunes known as the Nebraska Sandhills. National trail advocates have announced plans to make it a part of the Great American Rail-Trail, a 3,700-mile, coast-to-coast trail designed to connect Washington state and Washington, D.C.
"Once it's fully developed, it's going to have a significant impact on the small towns it passes through," said Chuck Griffith, president of the Nebraska Trails Foundation and a former local economic development official. "It might be the difference between a restaurant making it and not making it. It's not going to save the town, but it will help the economy."
Griffith said the trail has been used to facilitate taco rides, where a group of cyclists rides to a Mexican restaurant. Other rides take bikers to wineries or bars.
Some small-town officials along the route say the trail has given a small but noticeable boost to their communities.
"We're very fortunate to have it," said Ed Brown, the mayor of Long Pine, a town of 300 in north-central Nebraska. "It's one of the few assets little towns like Long Pine have, and it has real potential in the future to help tourism come through."
Brown said community leaders converted an old railroad bunkhouse into a kind of hostel for bicyclists. For $35 a night, riders passing through town can get a private bed with a sink and a communal shower and toilet just a block from the trail.
Brown said the bunkhouse has drawn small bike-touring groups and even a cross-country bicyclist from Israel. He said he was concerned about flood damage to the trail on both sides of town.
"We need something like this," he said.
Duryea said residents along the Cowboy Trail tend to use the trail for dog-walking or casual strolls, but it also has drawn international bike riders from as far as British Columbia and Germany. It has also served local bicycle events and ultramarathons.