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A lesson in how government works
By: The Tribune Editorial Board December 14, 2001
A little-known committee that doles out federal dollars for trails in Iowa met in Ames earlier this week. Uncharacteristically, it filled the room with people. They were for the most part polite, but it also can be said that the meeting dragged on with at least some tangential filibustering, came head to head with some parochial stereotyping, and petered out in the end more than it came to conclusion.

      It also provided a good lesson in how government works.
      The committee is led by two officials from the state Department of Transportation, who are joined by a half dozen citizen advisors. It administers for Iowa the money available from the National Recreational Trails Fund, set up by Congress in 1991 and reauthorized in 1998.
      According to the fund's Web site, the dollars are supposed to develop and maintain recreational trails and trail facilities for both nonmotorized and motorized uses. Examples include hiking, bicycling, in-line skating, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, off-road motorcycling, all-terrain vehicle riding or four-wheel driving.
      The issue that packed the room is the proportion of dollars spent on motorized versus non-motorized trails in Iowa.
      By law, in any given year, 30 percent of the money available from the federal fund is supposed to be spent on non-motorized trails, 30 percent is to be spent on non-motorized trails, and 40 percent is to be spent on trails with diverse use.
      And, in fact, the Iowa committee has met that requirement. Since it first started granting money, in 1993, the committee has funded 25 projects totaling $2.7 million. Last year, non-motorized trails received $463,340 and motorized trails received $304,160.
      But some in the audience at Wednesday's meeting argued that the funding percentages don't reflect the numbers of actual trail users in Iowa. According to Iowa Department of Natural Resources figures, the greatest use of Iowa trails happens within state parks, which get more than 13 million visits per year. The people making those visits are by and large foot-powered.
      The numbers admittedly are imprecise, but using that basis, the DNR documents calculate that from 80 to 85 percent of trail users in Iowa are hikers. Bicycling accounts for another 10 percent. And all other uses - horse-back riders, kayakers, skiers, snowmobilers or motorcyclists - account for roughly 5 to 10 percent.
      The lesson in American government came then as people who told the committee they were variously bird watchers, canoeists, hikers or other non-motorized trail users made a case for more representation and funding. They, of course, were met with still others who were snowmobilers or off-road vehicle users, with a vested interest in developing their own trails. And, as can be expected, when birder met biker, a few feathers flew. But by and large the meeting was cordial.      
      A few points might be made:
       The volunteers who serve as advisors on this committee should be commended. They put in their time to score project proposals and they do their best to represent a variety of interest groups. But the advisory board might be better served with added members who more formally represent user groups. No one from the state Audubon Society chapters, for example, sits on the board. Nor does anyone from the Sierra Club. Also, board members sit for indefinite terms. The upside is that it takes some time for members to learn the process and become comfortable in their roles. The downside is that without terms of office, members may sit in perpetuity. Some steps toward remedying this situation were taken by the committee, as Des Moines resident Gerry Rowland, representing primarily canoeists and kayakers, was invited to join the group.
       The existing funding structure can't be changed by this group - that would take a federal initiative. But working within the 30-30-40 percent funding formula, non-motorized users might be better served if the 40 percent designated for diverse uses is intelligently applied, and therefore added to the 30 percent already designated for non-motorized users. Of course, there are some uses that are inherently incompatible. It is not safe to put cross country skiers traveling between 5and 15 mph on the same trails as snowmobilers traveling 60 to 70 mph. But the committee itself provides a good model for how diverse uses can coexist. That thrust should be extended to trail use, as well. Many uses, through trail design and a little tolerance, can be accommodated in the same area. And not all user groups are mutually exclusive. Not all birders are non-hunters, for example. And some bicyclists may also be snowmobilers. If government could help us all get along better, it would be noble, indeed.
       The committee could advertise its availability of funds better. As it is, word of mouth is the main way that grants are solicited. A more representative mix of grant applications could be received - and consequently, a better mix of trails could be funded - if more people knew about this particular fund, how it works, and how it relates to other sources of funding out there.
      While the meeting might have stretched the limits of the little room deep within DOT offices, it also stretched the scope of the committee. People making themselves heard is how government works in America. Everyone who attended should commend themselves for at least that.      

©Ames Tribune 2001
Reader Opinions
Post your opinion and share your thoughts with other readers!
 Name: Troy Hendrickson
Date: Dec, 15 2001
I for one would like to see the development of some trails for 4 X 4 use, there are many areas where existing dirt roads have been more or less abandoned that could easily be desginated for such use, especially in the Saylorville and Boone Forks areas. Minnesota has great off road trails, most of which are designated 2WD with sufficient ground clearance which allow many people to get to areas that would otherwise be inaccesible to them for various reasons, including physical handicaps such as the ones that prevent my wife from really enjoying the outdoors with me.
Number of Opinions: 1 1 - 1 of 1
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