Tom Kacich | Dreaming big of rail trails in Piatt County, East Central Illinois

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East Central Illinois has been woefully devoid of long-distance recreational rail trails, but that situation may be slowly changing.

Not only is an announcement about a schedule for completion of the long-awaited Kickapoo Rail Trail imminent (only 11.3 miles of the planned 24.5-mile trail from Urbana to Kickapoo State Park has been built), but progress is being reported on other fronts.

The city of Monticello is planning to extend its Sangamon River Bridge Trail another 1.1 miles west along an abandoned railroad corridor to provide better access for cyclists to Allerton Park.A community meeting is set for Tuesday night in White Heath for members of the newly formed Trails for Piatt County to brainstorm ideas for building rail-trail segments through other areas of the county, including a potential 2.3-mile segment between White Heath and Lodge.Area parks officials and bicycle enthusiasts are looking into the long-range potential for a rail trail that eventually could extend from Bloomington-Normal to Danville.

“This is going to be a fun season of announcements on trails. There is a lot of excitement,” said Jeff Yockey, executive director of Champaign County Bikes and also chair of the newly formed Trails of the Grand Prairie. The latter group used to be known as Friends of the Kickapoo Trail.

Champaign-Urbana and the rest of East Central Illinois are far behind other areas of the state in the development of recreational rail corridors. The Constitution Trail and its various connectors in the Bloomington-Normal area measure around 60 miles. The Quad Cities area has more than 100 miles of trails, the Peoria area has more than 40 miles and metropolitan Springfield has about 25 miles of trails for biking, walking and running.

East Central Illinois has a lot of catching up to do.

Trails of the Grand Prairie hopes to jump-start the development of some 33 miles of abandoned Illinois Central Railroad right of way that Champaign prairie preservationist David Monk, who died in December, had acquired in 1988 — at the bargain-basement price of $165,000 — through his Heartland Pathways group.

Monk and Heartland Pathways never did anything with the property, but his vision, contained in a 2007 writing still online, called for rail trails west to Clinton and southwest to Decatur.

Now, former members of the Heartland Pathways board are ready to move.

“These things are going to happen. It might take a while, but they will happen,” said Dirk Mol, a retired psychotherapist and former cyclist from Champaign who was on the Heartland Pathways board. “This is the wonder of rail trails. It gets people out into nature and away from the roads.”

He is looking forward to construction of the segment between White Heath and Lodge (“it would be a gem of a trail”) that includes travel through wetlands and creeks, over five bridges and trestles and through the Shady Rest Park owned by the Piatt County Forest Preserve District.

For now, Mike Dixon, the director of the forest preserve district, said he and his board are only watching the developments, particularly the extension of the trail west from Monticello.

“We’re interested, but we’re just going to sit back and watch what goes on here,” said Dixon. “We’re looking to see how it goes with Monticello going out west toward Cisco.”

One concern is exactly what Monk and Heartland Pathways acquired in the deal 35 years ago with the Illinois Central.

“Heartland Pathways bought those rights for the easement and the right of way,” Yockey said. “We’re trying to figure out exactly what that means. There are questions, but there also are processes that will allow things to happen in a fairly normal way.

“What we’re gaining here is a headache. But the opportunity to steward these corridors into the hands of people like the city of Monticello that will put trails on it and make it available to the people of Illinois is just so great.”

Trails of the Grand Prairie will not own or maintain the rail trails, Yockey said.

“The future of our organization is not to be a land-owning entity that is caring for trails,” he said. “Probably what will happen over time is that a corridor will be handed over to different agencies that have a vested interest in the section to care for it.”

That’s what happened, he noted, in the development of the Kickapoo Rail Trail. It was first promoted by the Champaign County Design and Conservation Foundation, a private group. As the railroad right of way was acquired, its construction in maintenance was turned over to three separate agencies: the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, Vermilion County Conservation District and Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Tuesday’s meeting of the Trails for Piatt County group will begin at 7 p.m. at the White Heath Community Building, 155 S. Orange St. Anyone interested in more trails for Piatt County is welcome, Mol said.

“You want to dream big?” he said. “When some of us do, we think of a corridor linking Champaign-Urbana and Danville to Bloomington-Normal through Mahomet, Farmer City and Mansfield.”

In fact, Tim Bartlett, executive director of the Urbana Park District, said he put together a Central Illinois Trail Summit of parks officials and trail recreation advocates last winter and hopes to meet again soon.

“We’ll talk about the Constitution Trail in Bloomington-Normal and whether we can connect it through Farmer City and Champaign and Piatt County,” Bartlett said. “We’ll be learning what these groups are doing, what are the opportunities, what are the barriers, learning all that will make us smarter and more together. And then each group can go back and work on their respective units.”

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