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Target Steady Funding for Recreational Trails

Investment Will Boost Economy, Quality of Life


Des Moines Register

April 21, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

According to a recent Iowa Department of Natural Resources survey, nearly a third of Iowans used a recreational trail in the past two years. Meanwhile, Iowa lawmakers are haggling over how little to earmark for the State Recreational Trails Fund. The House infrastructure bill contains $1 million for the fund. The Senate version contains $2 million.

The $2 million figure is the minimum lawmakers should appropriate.

Iowa should be thinking much bigger when it comes to recreation, which is important to Iowa's future. Outdoor opportunities stimulate the economy, spur tourism, increase property values and encourage healthier lifestyles. All told, such quality-of-life activities encourage people to want to live here, an ongoing challenge for Iowa. New census figures show the state lost residents at a higher rate from 2000 to 2004 than all but nine other states.

One study on the Wabash Trace Nature Trail, in southwestern Iowa, found it brought $600,000 in annual economic benefits to the area. People buy everything from bicycle helmets to snacks for their rides. When the Mississippi River Trail is completed, it's expected to draw $20 million to Iowa's economy each year. People will be able to ride from Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico, and come right through Iowa. That could spur creation of new businesses.

And it could lure tourists. Iowa is already known as a biking destination. Each summer, 10,000 riders and 5,000 support people come from all over the world to enjoy the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. The state should capitalize on its bicycling reputation the 51 other weeks of the year. Iowa can become a recreational vacation destination the way Missouri and Wisconsin are.

The State Recreational Trails Fund is the best thing Iowa has now to help make that happen. The fund provides money to draw federal matching dollars for trails. Yet because this fund has been shortchanged in the past, it has a negative balance of more than $1 million. Projects previously approved for funding are awaiting completion. Some of the new money appropriated is needed to "catch up" these projects. Other sources of recreational funding, including federal dollars, are just as unreliable.

Some communities drum up bucks themselves. Proceeds from the annual Mayor's Ride, which will roll through the streets of Des Moines Saturday, will provide money for local trails. The city of Ames passed a $5 million bond issue in 2001 to fund recreational opportunities. In Muscatine, voters redirected a portion of its local-option sales tax toward trails and park improvements.

Trails and other recreational amenities across the state need reliable funding. Iowa should follow the lead of Missouri, where voters approved dedicating a portion of state sales tax to conservation and recreation. That ongoing funding stream has provided millions of dollars to build trails, restore landmarks, purchase land and maintain infrastructure. Missouri knows a steady investment in recreation is an investment in the state's economy.

Iowa should get rolling in offering more recreational opportunities, too.