Farmers’ concerns among those being raised as Great Western Trail inches closer to connecting northern Colo. towns
Where train cars once whizzed by transporting sugar beets between Eaton and Windsor, there will eventually be a 12-mile walkway that connects those communities and provides a northern alternative to the Poudre River Trail.
Organizers are making some headway on the Great Western Trail, which traverses the abandoned tracks of what was once the Great Western Railroad, after years of effort to get the project going.
The trail stretches from west Windsor on a paved portion that hugs Windsor Lake, then travels northeast across Weld County roads 74 and 76 in Severance and dips south to cross through rural Weld County until it reaches Eaton.
The portion between Severance and Eaton is incomplete, but organizers are chipping away at the trail with the goal of opening one mile per year to the public.
Improvements begin on Monday to a 3-mile stretch of the trail between Windsor and Severance, which will add a compact mixture of very finely crushed gravel to the pathway as a more comfortable option for walkers, runners and cyclists.
The upcoming activity on the Great Western Trail is an encouraging sign, supporters say, but it has been a rocky road thus far.
After the Great Western Trail Authority, a coalition of the towns of Windsor, Severance and Eaton, was created in 2006, the trail encountered opposition from surrounding property owners, who said the abandoned rail land should revert back to their ownership.
Farmers also voiced concerns about allowing the public to wander through land that is regularly sprayed with chemicals and dotted with precarious irrigation operations.
A court battle ensued in 2007, ending with the verdict from a Weld District Court judge that the Great Western Trail Authority has the legal rights to the abandoned land.
Although the legal issue was resolved, some farmers remain worried about the safety aspects of the trail, and the nuisance factor of dogs, ATVs and cyclists veering into their crops.
Organizers now face the daunting task of resolving those issues, as well as the “many, many” encroachments that exist on the trail’s right-of-way, from irrigation systems to reroutes of the trail for farm use — a task that won’t likely be breezy, given the trail’s history.
But those involved with the trail remain optimistic.
The portion of the trail set for improvements this year passes Severance Middle School, which made it competitive for a Safe Routes to School grant, and highlights the benefits of a regional trail, said Andy Nagel, vice chairman of the Great Western Trail Authority.
The authority also received a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado, for a combined $160,000 to go toward this year’s improvements, Nagel said.
“We believe this will be the showcase of how we intend to finish the rest of the trail,” he said. “It will get a lot of use, we think, with student traffic. We are certain that will make it easier to get additional grants.”
The Great Western Trail in Weld County would be one of thousands to sprout up across the nation after the Rails to Trails Act in 1983, which allowed rail companies to bank their railroads for use as trails until a time when those railroads might be needed again.
The effort was a convenient way to carve out new options for recreational trails, but proved a litigious subject not just in Weld County but across the nation.
A group of Weld property owners joined others across the country in filing suit against the federal government for not compensating them for easements on their land used by the rail lines. Some have been successful, including a settlement in South Carolina for $33.5 million.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court also ruled in favor of a property owner in a Wyoming rails to trails case, saying the easements used by the railway company expired once it ceased to operate. The ruling was specific to the land in that case, but may have broader implications for rails to trails projects, some say.
Even so, volunteers are paving the way, as it were, for the Great Western Trail to move forward.
Tom Jones and Steve Bagley, chairman and secretary of the Great Western Trail Authority, paid a visit to Weld County commissioners this spring to ask for their blessing and a possible letter of support in the event of another grant application.
In a way, Jones said, surrounding property owners seem resigned to the fact that the trail will become a reality sooner rather than later.
Commissioners were mostly receptive to Jones’ comments, although they said trail organizers must work with individual property owners to quell their concerns, and must hold community meetings.
“I can tell you that you are going to have some farmers that are not going to be very happy,” Weld County Commissioner Mike Freeman told Jones and Bagley. “If we could mitigate something to where … they are OK with it, that is going to make it OK for me.”
Commissioners said they wouldn’t be willing to commit any funding at this point, especially until more communication with surrounding property owners is underway.
Jones said the authority will certainly reach out to property owners, as well as negotiate putting up signs, fencing and other safety measures where necessary along the trail.
“In reality, we never claimed that we were not willing to negotiate with property owners,” Jones said. “In fact, it’s an absolute necessity that we do.”
Mike Hungenberg, a Greeley-area farmer, said he has had similar concerns with the Poudre River Trail.
“The biggest concern that we have is that you are getting people that are not familiar with irrigation and canals and head-gates, and you’re putting them right in the middle” of it all, Hungenberg said, echoing the sentiments of other farmers who say running a trail through agricultural operations is akin to running it through a manufacturing or industrial site, complete with the dangers of drowning, electrocution and exposure to pesticides.
He said even his son, who bikes around Greeley, has gotten on his case about helping the Poudre Trail connect to Fort Collins.
“That would be your father’s ditch company that won’t let you go there,” Hungenberg said with a laugh.
He irrigates his farm with water through the New Cache la Poudre Irrigating Co. Ditch, or the No. 2 Ditch.
“I think it is vital to the community — it’s just way better than being around the roads,” Hungenberg said of the trail. “But you have to be considerate of the ditch company’s rights.”
Becky Safarik, Greeley’s assistant city manager who works closely with Poudre River Trail efforts, said those involved with the Poudre Trail similarly work with individual property owners as efforts move forward to stretch the trail from Greeley to Fort Collins.
She said the main concern she hears is about liability — whether, if a trail-goer gets hurt while wandering into nearby private property, the property owner could be sued.
State law exempts landowners from that kind of liability, Safarik said, so many efforts surround getting that information out to all of those affected by the trail.
Safarik said it’s similarly a good idea to keep in contact with those property owners for things like crop dusting, so that they can alert trail-goers if the area was recently sprayed.
The last component is reminding those who use the trail to be respectful of private property, she said.
“You have to be a good trail user, too,” Safarik said. “We’ve had a pretty good experience of people sticking to the trail and not trespassing,” she said.
Way in the future
If all goes as planned, Nagel said he hopes to see the layer of finely crushed gravel that is about to coat the western portion of the trail, which spans 10 feet wide and 4 inches deep, stretch the entire 12-mile walkway within the next decade.
But there are still a number of obstacles.
Aside from what individual landowners are going through in federal court, there are portions of the trail, such as the trestle over Roulard Lake east of Severance, that could be costly to revamp, Nagel said.
There are also places where the trail bed was cut through to allow livestock to cross, meaning they may have to build bridges so that trail-goers and livestock don’t intersect.
The trail authority is tackling areas where rights-of-ways are a little clearer first, and working its way up to more challenging areas.
With a little annual funding from member towns, Nagel said, volunteers and the trail authority board members spray for weeds and grade the trail one mile at a time. Those efforts create a simple dirt path but allow them to open it up to the public, he said.
Right now, Nagel said, they are tackling the area between Weld County Roads 31 and 33.
Once trail usage surges higher, he said the authority would consider going through another round of grants to get the entire thing paved.
But Nagel said trail users shouldn’t get ahead of themselves.
“That is, like, way down in the future.” ❖