Clearing proceeds for Lehigh trail

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November 17, 2014 - 12:00 AM

One affirmation of the value Iola places in its burgeoning network of trails can be found in the handful of volunteers who turned up last Saturday in below-freezing temperatures to continue work on the area’s newest project.
The Lehigh Portland Rail Trail will go from Elm Creek Park, on South Washington Avenue, then cut east along the south side of the creek, where it will continue on a gradual rise above the north side of the quarry, which was created more than a century prior by the former Lehigh Portland Cement Company. From there it will travel east and connect to the opposite trailhead at South Kentucky.
The main trail, tracing the steep shelf of limestone overlooking the scenic quarry and running, in total, for about a mile and a half, will offer impressive views of what is now Elks Lake. (Note: while trailside views of the lake are free of charge and open to the public, recreational use of its water continues to be reserved for Elks members only.)
Unlike the Southwind and Prairie Spirit trails, however, the Lehigh will offer up to six miles of dirt paths that will branch out from the main course, providing mountain bikers and trail runners with a diverse maze of single-track trails over which to roam.
According to its executive director, David Toland, Thrive Allen County’s goal in continuing to expand its web of trails, is twofold. The first priority is to improve the health of Allen County by investing in the types of amenities that encourage people to become physically active. The second is to promote “active tourism” — to make Allen County a destination for individuals and families who will plan their trips to southeast Kansas on the promise of world-class hiking, cycling and running.
Recognizing the economic lift that flows from this new tourism, Iola Industries, Inc., which owns the land, granted the easement that allowed for construction on the trail to begin.
It was on the basis of these same ambitions that the Kansas Health Foundation awarded the group a $100,000 grant by which the development of the trail will be financed.
 
UNLIKE SOUTHWIND, the land over which the Lehigh trail will travel is crowded with thick-bodied trees whose tops form a canopy of interlocking branches. And the ground, even along the edges of the old logging roads, is coarse with bramble. Clearing the way is hard and slow.
The substantial progress of the trail so far — which, according to Toland, is ahead of schedule — is due largely to the commitment of its volunteers. In addition to local helpers, Thrive was recently able to sell a group of Kansas University students on the idea of spending their fall break clearing brush.
Continuing the effort on Saturday morning, Thrive board member Don Burns, chainsaw in hand, was making swift work of a large cedar, dismembering its column section by section, while Randy Rasa was attacking the fallen branches with a pair of loppers.
Rasa, who chose to move to Iola a few years ago, in part on the strength of its already existing bike trails, now finds himself one of this trail’s primary designers.
He’d spent the previous days tunneling through the dense foliage with his long-handled trimmer, cutting preliminary routes for a number of the mountain bike corridors.
He’s familiar with comparable trails nearby but contends that the terrain along the old quarry is likely the most diverse. “You’ve got all the riparian environment down by the creek, you’ve got hardwoods up on the hills, you’ve got cedars down near the main trail, and over here,” Rasa says, indicating a high-lying tableland of low scrub bushes and shallow rock, “is a section that reminds me of desert.”
Rasa’s attention to the details of the natural landscape, as well as his consideration of the site’s industrial history, is chronicled on the official Lehigh Trails website, which he created and maintains in conjunction with Thrive.
“One of the things I found interesting, digging through the Register’s archive, was an article from 1979, where the City Council was talking about turning this land and the quarry into a public recreation area. Ultimately they decided not to do that — but I think it’s cool that we’re going to be coming into that vision 35 years later.”
Reflecting on the trails laid down in the community so far — Prairie Spirit, Southwind — and on the progress of the Lehigh trail to date, and on the Missouri Pacific Trail, which will cut across Iola from east to west come spring, Toland is clear: “There is no community in Kansas that is as aggressive on trails as Iola. When this is all done, our trail network will be second to none in the state.”
The group continues to request volunteers and will be at work again next Saturday, beginning at 9 am.

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