City of Columbia says trail construction is a conservation strategy

Conservation lies at the heart of two hotly contested issues: environmental preservation and recreation.

The city of Columbia has received backlash from environmentalist group It’s Our Wild Nature for the construction of paved trails along Hinkson Creek, which has been considered impaired by pollution since 1998. The group’s President said the ecological impacts of using heavy machinery to construct the trail threaten to worsen the Creek’s condition.

Opposition to development along Hinkson Creek underscores a larger point of contention between activists for recreation and conservation. While some say nature should be preserved from human impacts at all costs, others think recreation is the only way to garner public support for conservation in a time when the environment itself is politicized. 

“People protect what they love.” Mike Snyder, Parks Planning and Development Superintendent said.  

“Because people protect the MKT, for example, we have acquired about a thousand acres of buffer land along the trail,” Snyder said, adding that the MKT spurred the creation of other nature areas such as Forum Nature Area and Twin Lakes.

But non-profit organizations like It’s Our Wild Nature have limited financial ability to endure legal fees required to protest eminent domain and other forms of state authority, and it can seem like they’re stuck in a losing battle.

For years, the group had a grass path mowed along the east bank of Hinkson Creek, where the Shepard to Rollins Trail (alignment 1) and the upcoming section of trail connecting to Stadium Boulevard (alignment 3) run. Sutu Forte, president of the group, has long been outspoken against cutting down trees to open up tracts of woodland to public entry. She is specifically concerned, however, with continued use of concrete in establishing newly paved trails, as the cement sector is the third largest source of industrial pollution.

As it stands, the plans for alignment 3 will result in the removal of several mature oak and sycamore trees that can absorb dozens of tons of carbon dioxide each year. Forte said this carbon sequestration, which is one of the key ways to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, is more important than ever before.

It’s Our Wild Nature’s opposition to the new, paved trail is similar to past landowner opposition of the Katy Trail, and more recently, the Rock Island trail. Forte is not opposed to recreationalists enjoying wild areas, but she doesn’t think recreational interests should reshape the habitats of indigenous fauna, such as  deer, foxes, racoons, turtles, woodchucks, and other woodland creatures, by altering the floodplain with raised trail surfaces. 

She also criticized the project’s aim to reduce invasive species along the creek, saying the city helped gather a few dozen volunteers for an afternoon of weed-pulling, and then left the job largely unfinished after the first trail installment. The group’s volunteers have struggled to garner enough support  to reduce the spread of garlic mustard and Chinese bushclover, two of Missouri’s most prolific invasive species.

Forte also said she didn’t understand why the trail couldn’t be raised as a boardwalk above the animal habitat on the woodland understory, or be composed of crushed limestone and gravel, like the MKT trail.

The new paving, however, is not the only environmental hazard as a result of the trail development.

Emory Sapp and Sons, who built the Shepard to Rollins trail, chose not to employ silt fencing, which protects bodies of water from sediment contamination, during the construction of the Shepard to Rollins trail. 

Snyder said the contractors chose not to employ silt fencing because the on-site tree removal was compatible with the use of mulch berms, which are still in place. The invasive plant removal will take more time, Snyder said, but the city has ongoing plans to improve the area. 

“We have a really awesome Adopt-A-Trail program where people can adopt quarter mile sections of the trail, and it’s been extremely successful,” Snyder said “In addition to that, our forestry crews bite off sections and do extensive invasive removal; we just did several projects at forum nature area; we’ve done several at grindstone nature area.”

As for the boardwalk, Snyder said the department did consider it in the trail design, but it wasn’t feasible. Additional jackhammering, tree removal, and use of heavy machinery within Hinkson Creek itself would have been required, and Snyder said the Army Corps of Engineers would not have approved it.

As for limestone and gravel, Snyder said they don’t usually build trails quite like the MKT in flood plains, where severe flood events threaten their structure. 

On Friday, June 25, record breaking showers hit University of Missouri’s campus, with rainfall measured at 6.98 inches at Sanborn field. Floodplains were quickly overwhelmed by the rushing stormwater and sections of the MKT, including the 3M Flat Branch – Hinkson Creek Wetlands, was submerged in multiple feet of standing water. The Katy Trail itself was still closed due to flooding and flood damage from mile marker 153.6 to 174.50 a few days later.

Snyder said flooding is one of the biggest reasons concrete is used when possible during trail construction, as it should last 50 years with minimal maintenance. 

 “All concrete will crack, but even if it cracks periodically, it holds together really well as opposed to asphalt,” he said.

Tom Wellman, engineering specialist for the Columbia Stormwater Utility, worked for the floodplain administrator in the past, and said the project did not hinder the flood plain. 

“A floodplain is pretty important; a floodway is vitally important,” he said, explaining that the floodway must remain open in order to prevent floodwaters from backing up. During flash flooding events when Hinkson Creek is at a record height, such as it was in late June, the area does drain effectively.

As for trail supporters, Pednet Coalition Chief Executive Officer, Lawrence Simonson, said the organization would like to bring the land closer to its natural state. Pednet is primarily focused on increasing transportation opportunities for pedestrians and cyclists, which often results in recreational advocacy as well. 

“We are always willing to compromise, or change position based on what any of the environmental impact studies show,” Simonson said.

One local cyclist, Caleb Knerr, uses the trail to bike his daughters Katy and Annie to preschool three days a week. He said it’s a great source of peace and joy to be able to see snakes, turtles, deer, and great blue herons with his daughters.“A lot of the time when we’re out hiking, if we see milkweed after it’s all dried up and dead, we’ll take those and try to spread milkweed seed around. My daughter can identify them even at four years old, and she knows her special butterflies like milkweed.”

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