The recent removal of 13 large walnut trees along Elm Creek has caught the attention of users of the Lehigh Portland Trails — as well as the designers and volunteers who helped create the hiking and biking venue.
The trees were removed with the cooperation of Iola Industries, which owns the land containing the trail complex.
Getting to the individual trees required bulldozing a pathway into the landscape, roughly parallel to the trail’s eastern backbone — prompting some to wonder if a new feature was being added to the trail system.
“We really didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal,” John McRae, Iola Industries president, said.
Problem was, nobody involved with the trail’s upkeep knew about the project until after the cutting started.
“I was completely blindsided by this,” Randy Rasa, one of the primary trail stewards, told the Register in an email. He described himself as “heartbroken” after seeing the landscape in the aftermath of the project
“For a modest short-term monetary gain, Iola Industries has inflicted long-term damage on an important community asset,” Rasa wrote. “This operation has potentially crippled a portion of our economic development potential.”
Iola Industries is a local group of investors that promotes economic development in and around Iola, including the amenities of the trails.
The group’s executive board agreed to harvest the trees as a moneymaker, splitting profits with a local logging company. The group has done so twice before, McRae noted, albeit before the trail system was started in 2014.
McRae apologized for the lack of communication.
“We definitely should have let Thrive know,” he said. “I took responsibility to notify them and I didn’t do it.”
Thrive, in this case, is Thrive Allen County, which along with Iola Industries and a team of hundreds of volunteers, has been key in building and maintaining the trail system.
Thrive Chief Executive Officer Lisse Regehr pointed to the cooperation between the three entities in the trail’s development. “We wouldn’t have these trails without any of those three,” she said.
“Iola Industries has every right to harvest trees,” Regehr continued. “It’s their land.”
That said, she hoped future projects would include better commuication.
Rasa is a part of Thrive, but stressed his commentary about the tree removal was as a volunteer.
THE PATHWAY carved to the mature walnut trees went straight through one of the trail’s newest features, a pump track utilized by young dirt bike racers. A series of the pump track’s berms and small hills were plowed under.
The bulldozed pathway also intersects at different points with the Creekside Path, another popular route for mountain bikers.
Rasa was uncertain how much work would be necessary to remediate the land, which he noted was not limited to the pump track.
The logging work “destroyed many hundreds of trees, and devastated a high-quality old-growth riparian forest environment,” he wrote. “I can’t speak for any other volunteers, but for myself, I love this place, and I’m willing to work to try to put things right again, or at least as right as possible given the deep and long-lasting scars inflicted on this property.”
McRae said the Iola Industries board likely would have passed up on the logging request had it anticipated the harsh reaction. “This was not at all what we expected.”
IOLA INDUSTRIES acquired the land containing the trails after the old Portland Cement plant closed its doors in 1970. The southernmost parcel was used a few years later to house what became Gates Corporation.
The rest of the property sat largely undisturbed, quickly becoming overgrown with vegetation, until Thrive approached Iola Industries about developing the area into an outdoor recreation area.
Armed with a number of grants, the volunteers slowly but surely converted the site into what Rasa describes as “a jewel of southeast Kansas.”
“Iola Industries has, up to now, been a great partner in the development of the Lehigh Portland Trails,” Rasa said. “They shared Thrive’s vision of the property as an opportunity to turn an eyesore into an asset, to create a space for healthy outdoor recreation, a much-needed public nature area, a centerpiece of our community’s economic revitalization, and an amenity that we can be proud of.”
The lack of communication in this case, Rasa continued, was a breach of trust “of the hundreds of volunteers who have contributed their energy and passion, along with many, many thousands of hours of their time, into this project.”