Cyclists, runners, hikers and horseback riders wishing to use parts of the Cowboy Trail that have been closed since the March 2019 flooding will have to wait until at least 2021.
Michelle Stryker, division administrator, planning and programming at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, said the Cowboy Trail sustained more than $8 million in damages from the flooding, and several hurdles must be cleared before repairs can begin and ultimately be completed.
Much of the 195-mile, multi-purpose trail spanning from Norfolk to Valentine is still usable, but 170 stretches were damaged in last year’s flooding, resulting in the closure of several segments along the trail.
The stretch of trail between Norfolk and Battle Creek opened up less than two months after the flooding last year. In areas where the trail is still not passable, trailgoers hop on to nearby highways.
There is also structural damage to bridge approaches at O’Neill and Neligh, and the Elkhorn River caused significant erosion on the embankments near Norfolk, Neligh and Oakdale. A century-old box culvert in an embankment near Valentine is failing and causing the trail to collapse.
Areas of the trail that are closed due to washouts or compromised bridges include:
— An approximately 3-mile stretch between Oakdale and Neligh (Homan Street in Oakdale to 525th Avenue in Neligh).
— The entire 9-mile stretch of trail between Neligh and Clearwater.
— A 3.5-mile stretch from the Dry Creek Wildlife Management Area to O’Neill.
— A half-mile stretch south of Valentine over the Niobrara Bridge.
Stryker said Nebraska Game and Parks has been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency in coming up with a plan to execute in completing trail repairs.
“It’s a very long process to go through, trying to finalize specific damage,” Stryker said. “Every location that has been damaged on the trail is its own project site.”
It is anticipated that most of the money needed to repair the trail will come from FEMA, but it’s likely that state programs such as the Nebraska Outdoor Recreational Development Act fund will be responsible for contributing to the remaining of the expense.
According to Stryker, there are still funding mechanisms that need to be worked out, and a significant amount of paperwork will have to be filled out and formally approved before any contractors can begin construction on areas of the trail that need fixing. This paperwork is primarily to ensure that specific procedures are being followed.
“We are doing our best to get the trail open, but looking at a timeline, we won’t be able to get repairs done by this fall or winter like people are hoping for,” Stryker said. “Bridge repairs in specific could take a while, and it’s not a project that can be finished overnight.”
Stryker said the Cowboy Trail has seen a recent uptick in activity during the COVID-19 outbreak as more people are seeking to partake in outdoor activities. Those using the trail are encouraged to use caution using open trail segments and not risk using closed segments, as some are completely impassable.
Plans have been made to expand the Cowboy Trail west of Valentine to Chadron, which would make it the world’s longest rail-trail. Those plans are still in place, but Nebraska Game and Parks is prioritizing repairs of the existing trail before expansion.
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has an existing partnership with Chadron regarding the Cowboy Trail expansion, and Stryker said the community has been accepting of the possibility that it will likely be significantly longer before the Cowboy Trail expands west.
“They’re very understanding of there being $8 million in repairs to the existing trail,” Stryker said. “Every community understands the plight of a flood and what that does to you and what it takes away. Communities have been ready for something as significant as the Cowboy Trail to come to their communities, but they’ve been really understanding of the reality of the situation.”