Rail-to-trail fight splits southeast S.D. residents

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — An attempt to take 27 miles of an old railroad line that no longer carries traffic between Platte and Ravinia and turn it into a modern gravel trail for biking and hiking is blowing up.

On one side are supporters who see recreation and tourism potential. They’re facing opposition from farmers and ranchers who’ve been making their living along it.

The people who will decide what happens on the Napa-Platte line are members of the state Railroad Board, who oversee the state-owned property, and, ultimately, Governor Kristi Noem, who appoints the board and has something of a final say on what happens to the line.

The state board heard from the sides Wednesday. State Transportation Secretary Joel Jundt recommended supporters present “a more formalized plan” that could be posted for public review.

The project’s backers already have a website and gave the board a fistful of recent endorsements and letters of support from local elected officials in Wagner, Tyndall, Marty, Lake Andes, Avon, Tabor, Springfield, Pickstown and Platte, as well as a variety of community groups.

Ron Wagner of Tyndall, one of the project’s backers, said the group intends to apply for a grant of $2 million or more from the federal Economic Development Administration and faces a January 31, 2022, deadline. Wagner said they plan to raise about $500,000 as a match and so far have about $300,000 in pledges. He said they’re still working on a maintenance plan.

The group meanwhile wants a formal memorandum of understanding from the state board before the end of 2021, Wagner said, as well as a commitment that the state Department of Transportation will remove any remaining rail and ties but leave trestles and bridges.

“If we don’t get the grant, we will continue on,” Wagner said.

Their goal is something similar to the George S. Mickelson Trail that runs through the Black Hills in western South Dakota.

Ed Van Gerpen, a former legislator from Avon and now an elected member of the Bon Homme County Commission, spoke against the project Wednesday. He said parts of the route are overgrown by trees that would make getting equipment in “impossible.”

Van Gerpen suggested that trail supporters get easements along the route from landowners who farm and raise livestock. “Otherwise this project will never go forward, at least in my area,” he said.

The pro-trail group held two public meetings recently. The straw poll at Platte was 35-25 in favor. At Lake Andes, the result was 12-12.

The state board received letters of opposition, too. Approximately five miles of the trail would use township and county roads.

The liability that a local government could face worried David Scott of Geddes. “As a township officer, it scares the hell out of me what might happen,” Scott said.

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