By Will Stahl
Along the roads you see them, ribbons of asphalt that in the afternoons and on weekends stream with self-powered people walking, running, biking, skateboarding and rollerblading. Some are in wheelchairs or pushing strollers. These trails, as they are called, are becoming so common, it’s easy to forget they are a new feature of our urban landscapes. Twenty years ago, bike trails were way out of town mostly, on old abandoned rail beds. Wisconsin was the leader in the rails-to-trails movement with the Elroy-Sparta trail, but it took a few decades for the bike trail to come to town.
Mike Kading is the Town of Menasha Director of Parks and Recreation and current president of Fox Cities Greenways, the organization that did much to bring this not-yet-finished trail system into being. In his office at the Town of Menasha municipal building, he told me about Greenways’ history and plans.
Kading was quick to tell me that FCG is an advocacy group; they have no authority over the trails. They try to align with the local municipalities and encourage them to build or extend trails and bike lanes.
He credits the 1993 founding of the organization to Val Wylie, Sue Kinde and Jim Duncan. They had the idea for a bike and walking trail system that could connect the towns and cities of the Fox Valley for purposes of transportation or recreation.
The first projects they promoted were the CE trail running east from Appleton and, more conspicuously, the Trestle Trail. The founders saw the abandoned railroad trestle across Little Lake Butte de Morts as an opportunity to create a new way for people to experience their cities’ watery surroundings.
Though it took ten years to make the Trestle Trail a reality, it has become the iconic centerpiece of the whole Fox Cities trail system. Not incidentally, it has become a link from Neenah-Menasha to the eminently bikeable country to the west.
From the beginning, the trails have had strong supporters and vocal opponents. The issues have varied from community to community: expense, property rights, safety. I asked about the recent stir over the bike lanes along the streets of Appleton. Kading says he understands the concerns; people have long felt they had a right to park on the street in front of their homes. They complain they are being told to give up that right for the benefit of people who don’t pay to use the street.
That’s not quite the way it is, Kading told me. Only 17% of state gas-tax money comes back to municipalities. City streets are mostly paid for by property taxes, and bike riders do pay those taxes, whether on their own property or through their rents. “I’m a bicyclist and I own a home,” Kading said.
Building the trail system has meant dealing with many different units of government. The Friendship Trail, which extends west from the Trestle Trail bridge, required working with the City of Menasha, Town of Menasha, and the Town of Clayton. Extension would mean working with the Town of Winneconne.
Bike trails have their limitations. For casual recreation and transportation, they are useful, but they are not meant for hardcore bikers who are training. Those riders would be going far to fast to be safe for other users.
Asked about the current status of the trail system, Kading estimates it includes over a hundred miles of trails and bike lanes. The Town of Menasha alone has about 19 miles of off-street bike trails.
Short-term goals include extension of the CB trail to Wisconsin Avenue. A further goal is completion of the Paper Trail, a circular 42-mile loop that would circumnavigate the Fox Cities, using in its length the CB and CE trails. The idea is to “create an experience near parks and open land.”
Kading said their vision for the future involves a return to the “greenways” roots. These paths were not meant to be the only purpose of these corridors. They were also meant to be belts of green space in and near the cities allowing wildlife habitat and means of safe movement. They have worked with the Wild Ones organization to plant beneficial native plants. FCG is also working with the Fox River Heritage Parkway people on signage and other aspects of the Fox River Water Trail.
The trails of the Fox Cities add to quality of life here. They encourage healthy activity and contact with others. Some people have found ways to use them to get to work or other destinations. Finally, they are providing wildlife with much-needed habitat. If you would like to support the mission of Fox Valley Greenways, go to their website at www.foxcitiesgreenways.org or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.