Because there are a myriad of hurdles built into the process, the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation (IDPR) has been patiently working for nearly 12 years to get snowmobilers and others access to a trail system from Ashton to Tetonia in eastern Idaho.
The 30-mile stretch of once forsaken railway was purchased nine years ago by the IDPR for the purpose of creating the Ashton to Tetonia Rails to Trails project-a project that has both proponents and detractors.
"It's a contentious issue," said Garth Taylor, manager of the east region of the Idaho Field Bureau for IDPR, who also attends public meetings on the project.
Proponents are pleased with the access to a network of seven bridges and the promise of groomed trails for snowmobilers in the winter. Detractors may appreciate the access for hikers, bikers and the like, but ATV and other motorized riders are disappointed that they will be denied access to the trails in the summer.
As part of the original grant proposal, access for snowmobiles was written into the Nordic use portion of the grant and the IDPR intends to continue to manage the trail that way after completion. Since the grant money is federal, there was a 9-10-year approval process that IDPR and the U.S. Forest Service had to submit to: Idaho Transportation Department (ITD), National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the Federal Highway Administration, to name a few.
"This project has a long history," Taylor said. "It has been a long time coming." The total funding for the bridges amounts to just shy of $2 million in a combination of federal grants, he said. There were also some individual land owners whom IDPR negotiated easement deals with for use of their property, which also added to the project's time span.
After getting the required approvals, ITD had enough funding to continue work on six of seven of the proposed bridges. The bridge over Bitch Creek wouldn't have been wide enough to accommodate a trail groomer, so the funding had to be renegotiated.
"The users got together to get additional finding to widen the historic trestle bridge over Bitch Creek," Taylor said. After getting the necessary funding and approvals, IDPR had an additional half million dollars to complete the Bitch Creek portion of the project. The original engineer for the project was consulted and after necessary changes were made, including widening the bridge from 10 feet to 12 feet, the work on that 5-mile stretch of trail continued through the summer.
The Ashton to Tetonia Rails to Trails project will connect the groomed trail from Madison and Teton counties on the south to the Fremont County trails to the north.
The projected bridges will traverse Fall River, Conant, Dugway, Bitch, Swanner, Bull Elk and Badger creeks.
"We're all excited to see the trail open," said Steve Frost, recreational resources bureau chief for the IDPR. "We think it's going to be a good thing in connecting two of the biggest snowmobiling trails in the state. We're linking two of the big guys. Snowmobiling is a big part of the economy in that area." Frost also said he was happy to have the bridges brought up to standard since some snowmobilers were using them-some as high as 200 feet off the ground-before guardrails and trestles were installed.
The trail itself will saddleback between loping hillsides, flat stretches of farmland and stunning open vistas. "The area is just beautiful," Taylor said. "It's gorgeous; you can see right into the Tetons."
If all goes as planned, the area should be open for the 2010 riding season.
Snowmobilers, start your engines.