All about prairie conservation efforts in Central Illinois

Mar 7, 2009

From the archive: Millennium Trails

Millennium trails

What is a trail?

A trail takes us from A to B, but implicit is something more. It is a pathway that winds its way through the landscape and offers the user an introduction to the local scenery. A trail can be simple, with a start and an end and a simple use, or it can be complex and have many uses. In Scotland, a hiking trail may be only 18" wide as it winds across farm fields and rocky crags. On the other hand, a city trail may be 10' wide, with mown edges, and cater to a mixed bag of hikers, bikers and bladers. In traditional trail parlance, this is a 'mixed use' trail. But for others, mixed use includes linear infrastructures for power, water and telephone; greenways and habitat preservations; and re-railroading, including historic, commuter or freight line restoration.

Local corridors

Locally, various agencies, including Heartland Pathways, have been acquiring rail bed for different reasons. For Heartland Pathways, the primary objective is the preservation of the natural history that exists along the right-of-way adjacent to an abandoned rail bed. Some sections of rail bed that Heartland Pathways has purchased from Illinois Central already carry fiber optics and power. Another objective for the bed is for recreational trails, which use the gravel bed along the middle of the right-of-way.

Preferably, such trails should start and finish in a population base. Heartland Pathways' trails in the Champaign-Monticello-Clinton area do not have this luxury, because, as is commonly the case with railroad abandonments, railroads keep active short-lines into towns where business is still viable. As a result of that business decision all legs of the Heartland corridors are blocked by the need for alternate entry ways into the respective towns along the way. People wanting to use the Heartland Pathways' potential trail west of Champaign, for example, have to negotiate twelve miles of the open road to Seymour before the rail bed becomes abandoned and available for use. The same situation exists at other ends of the corridor at Clinton and Cisco. Add to that the fact that the Monticello Railway Museum wisely purchased seven miles of active track which it has used most effectively for historic railroading, and it is axiomatic that the Heartland Pathways acquisition to the west does not offer easy answers where trail development is concerned. This considerably reduces the feasibility of a trail but it does not mean that segments of the trail, as from White Heath to the Sangamon, cannot be used.

Sometimes, if the rail bed is active as a short line or as a railway museum, hiking and biking trails can be located adjacent to the active line. But the unfortunate part of that situation is that the adjacent trail removes much of the right-of-way's valuable remnant vegetation.

In some countries, cars, trains, power lines, water, sewers, phone lines, hikers and bikers all use the same corridor. This is especially the case where narrow bridges and tunnels are involved. Traffic lights are usually used to control one-way traffic use. In this county, such a move is considered a liability risk, but when resources are scarce, careful use is a possibility. A once-a-year use of rails for a historic trip, for example, should not deny use of the bed for other purposes. In this setting it is suggested that trail authorities can make multiple use of the bed by allowing bikers and hikers to move along the space between existing or retro-fitted rail tracks. It should be pointed out that this process has been used for one hundred and fifty years where rails, roads, pedestrians, bikers and hikers all used the same space. With a little care the same sharing could and should be utilized in the future. Safety is a legitimate concern, but there is no reason why scarce resources should not be cooperatively used.

It should be stated that when Heartland Pathways purchased the west bed, there were very few rail-trails in the U.S., and that their acquisition was often violently opposed by adjacent owners. Basically, the neighbors wanted their ancestoral land back, and they also saw potential vandalism, although sometimes this was a subterfuge for their objection to the loss of potential land for agriculture. This situation has changed drastically over thirty years to the point that many opponents are now the strongest supporters.

To the east, in Champaign and Vermillion Counties from Urbana to Danville, where Heartland Pathways, aided by the Champaign County Design and Conservation Foundation (CCDC), has initiated the purchase of twenty-five miles of ConRail bed, the situation is different. Here the proposed trail will start and finish with a population base. The corridor starts in Urbana and continues twenty-five miles to another population base in Danville. Since no active short-lines have been retained by railroading interests, that problem has solved itself. It is hoped that this corridor will provide a much more feasible, prototype rail-trail in East Central Illinois. The purchase is also much more recent and by now there are over a thousand such trails, and the majority of them have been contributing assets to the communities through which they move.

The creation of a federal rail-banking act now means that an abandoned rail bed can be "interimly" used as a trail until a railway may want to re-use the bed. This is a positive move for most environmentalists, who would not mind seeing freight moved by rail rather than by the more convenient and popular, but less efficient, road transport. This type of reversion seldom occurs, so it is not a major disadvantage of an existing trail.

There is money available for rail-trails, but it is usually targeted to recreational use. The biological and other aspects of these corridors are sometimes heeded but is not well-funded. As a result, these corridors often become recreational super-trails that lose a lot of their biological wealth and ambience.

National status of trails

Independent groups such as the Railtrail and Greenway movement, as well as state and federal agencies and individuals, have encouraged themselves and others to dream of a network of trails across the U.S. The framework of a network is already in place.


Partnerships of interested agencies are being encouraged to make this network dream come true. State and federal funding is being provided to help drive this partnership concept. One program, "Millennium Trails", featuring long trails similar to the Appalachian Trail, is in place. There are now about twenty such trails that will help complete a network across the U.S. These trails are usually chosen for their unique features, such as coastlines, rivers, and cultural sites like the "Underground Railroad," that help develop the character of the region through which trails move.

The Chicago area has many rail and connecting trails, and the State is developing a trail network across the state north of Route 80, but the downstate region has few long distance trails and connections.

Get bold

Take a map and try to figure out how you would see your region participating in a national network of trails.


You could start with existing corridors, like the Illinois Michigan Canal, which is now a State and Federal Parkway that is a one hundred mile long obsolete canal from Chicago to La Salle-Peru.

How, for example, would you create a rail-trail and greenway preservation corridor between Indianapolis and St. Louis that would join up with the two hundred mile KATY trail across Missouri? Or could you think of a similar trail that would run from Indianapolis through East Central Illinois to Bloomington, Peoria, the Quad Cities and Iowa? Dreamers may carry the day, for there are abandoned rail beds, trackage and other resources out there that could be utilized.


Regional, statewide and federal planning is needed, along with the coordination of the many participating partners. Creation of the KATY trail took a great deal of interactive effort. At the outset there was farm and small community opposition, but fifteen years later that opposition has reversed itself, and the trail is now seen as an economic benefit which has provided a friendly opportunity for a great deal of community focus and interaction.

Abandonment Priorities

A first priority of the federal government visa is that the bed remain available for military use if the occasion should arise. State and federal governments also want to ensure that these trails will be economically feasible and of well-health to the communities through which they move.

Regional Challenges

In most cases, rail and river corridors near cities are used almost exclusively for commercial traffic. (In East Central Illinois, the scenario is for the retention of short-lines for grain transport.) That means that parallel routes must be found for trails, often on existing rights-of-way, or the trail must be located adjacent to the active rail bed. The option for quiet roads that have been superseded by highways is sometimes available but planning for these alternate routes calls for a great deal of understanding by roadside and railway engineers and users.

Re-education of the opposition is often essential and effective even if "accidents" and "rape and mayhem" scenarios can destroy well-intended planning. Fear of the unknown is understandable and can take over, making it difficult to create legitimate connections. Involvement, education and the use of precedent examples, where the anticipated fearful scenario has not occurred, are helpful.

There is also the challenge of regional planning. If one is looking at trails across the country, local leaders have to be encouraged to look at the overall region. All too often, this is not the case, and small sections of trails can be activated without reference to longer segments, which are essential if we are to create a national network. This situation has been improving since state and federal support groups and funding agencies began encouraging communities to pay attention to partnerships that extend beyond their individual urban area or interest focus.

Another challenge is that trails are mainly used by affluent people who can afford a lifestyle that includes expensive bicycles and the recreational release time to use them. When trails start in the center of a relatively depressed city and extend into the affluent hinterlands, there is precedence for conflict. Some trails have taken years to sort out that conflict and obtain funding. Such trails have been put in anyway, but usually the use of them drops off drastically in the inner suburbs.

A regional dream

Take, as an example, a potential corridor from Indianapolis to the Quad Cities as a possible national route. The corridor would have to be pieced together from rail bed and other elements that are currently disjunct. Starting at Indianapolis are some dreamtime considerations.

(a)Downtown Indianapolis

Moving a millennium trail through inner urban Indianapolis would have considerable challenges mainly because the area is ethnically largely Afro-American and poor.

(b)Urban Indianapolis to Crawfordsville

Moving a trail from the city limits through urban Indianapolis to the rapidly developing suburbs where the roads and rails are being heavily used is a challenge. Roads parallel to new highways and riparian corridors offer opportunities.

(c) Rural Indiana

From Crawfordville to Danville, Illinois, there is a railroad abandonment which is contiguous with the same line being abandoned between Danville and Urbana, Illinois. Unfortunately, the Indiana segment which has been acquired by the Crawfordsville Recreation Department is facing a rural sentiment that demands that the bed be returned to adjacent owners. The State of Indiana has even passed a recent (1995) law to enable it to take reversion. As a result, much of this corridor is being consumed for farming. Not all is lost, for many adjacent owners have not taken advantage of the law except to have this corridor regarded as a state and federal one.

These forty-five miles are urban and the rail bed is active. Here, alternative routes, possibly on old highways, are a must. Start with urban roads that parallel forty-five miles of existing active trackage from Indianapolis to Crawfordsville. Then let us travel west on forty-five miles of abandoned trackage to Danville, Illinois. Some of this trackage has been consumed, but let's put Humpty Dumpty together again if we can.

The bed from Danville to Urbana is in the process of being purchased as a rail-trail and greenway. The twenty-five miles is being purchased under a Federal "Interim Trail Use Agreement" with the Federal Government, which has a rider that mandates that if a rail company would want to return the bed to active use it can. That means that planning should include the possible use of the corridor for re-railroading.

West of Champaign the same ConRail line is active to Mansfield, so parallel "quiet" roads would have to be used by bicycles. From Mansfield west to Bloomington the rails remain intact, but the corridor is not being used. One suggestion is that the inactive rails be used as a tourist line jointly paid for by natural history and community interests. And so on with planning up to the Quad Cities and into Iowa.

Stake holders and partnerships

You may not think you can make a difference, but it is amazing what one voice or the voice of one group can do to suggest and promote alternatives.

The stakeholders need to get together. We need to bring people together to discuss these resources and suggest how they might be utilized.

The Prairie Monk is encouraging you to contact him and others, for there are many small tasks to be done, such as picking seed, preventing herbiciding and activating trail segments that lead to involvement and leadership. It isn't easy to bring people together, but one of the feelings that emanated from the 1999 Railtrails and Greenways Conference that I attended in Pittsburgh was that many of the most successful trails have been put together at the local level with a minimum of quote state and federal funding and a maximum of local involvement. That funding is available and we can use it, but essentially the strength of local trails comes from local participation and partnership involvement.

For more information, contact David Monk at 351-1911. Email Visit, or listen to the Prairie Monk with Bill Saylor on WEFT from 11am-12am on Sundays.

P.S. A reminder, if you are wanting to bike our trails, they are strictly a dream from a biking point of view. They are "undeveloped" and they don't have ideal starts and finishes. They do carry up to eighty-five species of prairie plants which is good for this area. The corridor crosses the Sangamon twice and the Salt Creek near Clinton once, on truss bridges and the bottomlands are beautiful. Our western leg runs four miles west from Seymour to White Heath, then twenty-one miles west to Clinton. To the southwest, we skip seven miles of Monticello Railway Museum trackage from White Heath to Monticello, then have another six miles of bed to Cisco. Part of this bed runs through the Allerton Park farms that the University of Illinois wants to sell to the State for prairie reconstruction. Our right of way would help provide the native seed for restoration. Heartland Pathways supports this project because Allerton Park does not have a quality prairie, and the restoration would provide the elements of a prairie/forest ecosystem. We envisage that, with the appropriate visitor centers this project would also be an attractive tourist site. Eventually we would like to run right into Decatur on a "quiet road" that parallels the eighteen mile active short-line from Cisco to Decatur.

The Heartland Pathways corridor to the west has lots of potential. You should know where it is and its features. The proposed ConRail corridor to the east has not been purchased yet, but you can windshield it or bicycle by it by traveling east from Urbana on Route 150 to Danville.

Thanks for your interest. We need your help to make these resources work.

Dave Monk

Ed: The picture included shows "A bridge in New Zealand that handles hikers and bikers as well as rail and road traffic, and was photographed recently by Trent Shepard."

—The WEFT Revue, Vol. 8 Issue 5: Sept.-Oct. 2000, p.6

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