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Cut to the Chase: Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda on the Rock Island Trail

  

By Chris Fennewald, editor for the Missouri Farm Bureau

There are some friends I have from Chicago that came to Missouri last summer to ride the Katy Trail, and I joined them for much of the bike ride. Riding the trail was on their bucket list, and everyone had a good time. They had heard great things about the trail converted from the abandoned Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway. They had not heard the history behind the trail. They did not know landowners granted easements for the railroad to use their land. They were not aware those easements were ignored when the trail was developed and a decade-long court case eventually led to a small landowner victory in U.S. Claims Court.

A writer for Farm Bureau during those years in the 1990s, I saw a responsibility to explain how the trail came about. These Chicagoans are great people, but they had no idea what landowners then went through. They didn’t know the history. Why should they?

It didn’t go smoothly back then. There were people enjoying the new trail who trespassed on private land to pet the pigs, get a better view or find out what was around the corner. It may occur less frequently, but it still happens today. I know landowners along the trail who deal with the trespassers and the liabilities that go along with people who don’t appreciate they are not where they should be. Last summer when our group passed by their homes, I made it a point to tell my friends about who these farmers were. My friends didn’t know. How could they?

Today, the Katy Trail is considered a success, but that success came at great expense to those who owned easements along the old rail corridor.

History is repeating itself. The proposed Rock Island Trail continues to move forward. It will take much longer and be more expensive to convert than the Katy Trail was 20 years ago. The new trail will create a southern part of a loop that when connected to the Katy Trail will become the longest hiking and biking trail in the U.S. Folks are looking at the possibility of a new manicured bike bath through the woods and not at the people who have lived with the original easement agreements along the unused, overgrown, impassable rail bed. Proponents tend to think that if landowners are compensated, there’s no problem, but for most, compensation is essentially the consolation prize for having their longstanding rights to the land under easement erased by federal law. Most would prefer to forego the compensation and keep the land.

Landowner concerns are still the same as decades ago. Public meetings have been held for landowners and others interested in the Rock Island in Westphalia, Owensville, Versailles and other towns. One farm couple involved in the Katy Trail court case has spoken at several meetings and answered questions from landowners. There is reason to worry. There are many out there who don’t understand the concept of land ownership. The words “trespass” and “liability” are foreign to them.

My friends from Chicago now have a better idea of those concepts, but nonetheless they are excited. Why wouldn’t they be? The promise of a new biking trail is very attractive. As history prepares to repeat itself, the concern is landowners’ rights along the rail will again be lost in the excitement of a new Rock Island Trail.