Nebraska Rural Trails: Three Studies of Trail Impact

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Benefits studied:
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Place: Council Bluffs (IA), Blanchard (MO), Lincoln (NE), Wabash (NE)

Overview

This study found that even in very rural places, developed trails provide valuable recreation opportunities for residents in addition to attracting new visitors and spending by non-locals. The results also suggest that trails contributed to increased community pride and a modest increase in activity levels, with few problems from crime or vandalism related to the trails.

Relevance

This study is a source of information regarding resident, property owner, and business owner opinions specifically on rural trails. However, because this study relies on self-reported perceptions, readers should keep in mind that the positive effects may be overstated by those in favor of the trails or understated by those who do not approve of the trails.

Location

The study includes trails that run through rural property, suburban areas, and small towns in both northern and eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.

Trail Type

This study covered four rails-to-trails segments, similar in their general physical characteristics and recreational potential.  These trails allow walking, bicycling, running/jogging, mountain biking, and cross country skiing. Limited equestrian use is allowed in certain areas, but motorized use is not allowed on these trails. The trails include:

  • 21 miles of the Wabash-Trace Trail that runs from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Blanchard, Iowa;
  • 25 miles of the Mo-Pac East Trail from Lincoln to Wabash, Nebraska;
  • 12 miles of the Oak Creek Trail from Valparaiso to Brainard, Nebraska; and

Nebraska’s Cowboy Trail, which was the nation’s longest rails-to-trails conversion at 47 miles when this study was conducted and runs from Chadron to Norfolk, Nebraska.

Purpose

This study’s purpose was to estimate the impact of rural rails-to-trails conversions on small town residents, businesses, and property owners. This research is part of the Nebraska Rural Trails Project, a multi-year research program designed to provide assistance to state and local trail managers and developers by documenting the impact of Nebraska’s developing trail system.

Findings

Residents generally had experienced a positive effect or no effect from the rails-to-trails conversion:

  • 74 percent of respondents indicated that they used the nearby trails for recreation daily, weekly or occasionally.
  • 48 percent of resident respondents said the trails had a positive impact on their own life; 41 percent said it had no impact.
  • 47 percent said the trails had a positive effect on their neighborhood, while 48 percent indicated no effect.
  • 68 percent and 64 percent said the trails had a positive impact on their community and county, respectively.
  • 54 percent indicated that living near the trails was moderately or much better than the railroad; 33 percent said there was no difference.

Fifty-five percent of business owners see the rails-to-trails conversions as having a slightly positive or positive impact on current business activity. It is noted that the perceived benefits of trails tended be greatest at the community level, as opposed to benefiting the respondent directly. Twenty-seven percent of the respondent businesses said that they provide some services to trail users such as food and supplies.

In the year following the rails-to-trails conversion, 39 percent of business located near a trail reported that the rails-to-trails conversion increased business; 53 percent said there was no change. After two years, positive responses to the trail increased to 62 percent, after five years positive responses increased to 68 percent.

Methods

The study used three separate mail surveys to examine the variables of interest in this study. The target subjects were, respectively, rural property owners, residential owners, and business owners. In their final forms, the surveys contained items addressing four distinct issues of interest: property values, trail development involvement, public safety, and trail use. Information on household demographics and trail usage patterns was also collected. Responses were obtained via random sample from 255 small town residents (27.9% response rate), 128 rural property owners (42.6% response rate), and 83 businesses (33.3% response rate) along the four trails.

Citation

Greer, D.L. 2001. Nebraska Rural Trails: Three Studies of Trail Impact. School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, University of Nebraska at Omaha.