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  • Fri October 28 2005
  • Posted Oct 28, 2005
Farmers lose planting area, and some say their property rights are being run over. By JARED STRONG REGISTER STAFF WRITER October 28, 2005 As far as Norman Peterson is concerned, Iowa can have as many recreational trails as its outdoor enthusiasts want. But he sees the Three Rivers Trail, which cuts through his Humboldt County farm on a former railroad bed, as a costly violation of his property rights. "I don't really mind the trail itself, but I want the rest of the land turned back to me," Peterson said. "The railroad was supposed to give it back, but they're nothing but a . . . bunch of cheaters." Earlier this month, Peterson, 75, placed locks on a series of gates that cross the trail, prompting someone - no one knows who - to rip out one of the gates. Peterson's actions reflect the resentment of some property owners - city dwellers as well as farmers - over the 1,350-mile network of recreational trails considered a boon to the state economy and a way to keep young people in Iowa. The state stands ready to receive an infusion of money for trail expansion, creating the potential for more friction between property owners and trail developers. Iowa's trails are used each year by "several hundred thousand walkers, runners and cyclists,'' said Lisa Hein , programming and planning director for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, who said that most trail disputes are a thing of the past.
Where to find more information of trails in Iowa:
The trails provide $50 million a year to Iowa's economy, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. That amount will increase as more trails and surrounding areas are developed, state officials say. But Three Rivers has been a source of irritation for Peterson, who lives just outside of Humboldt and has been farming 154 acres of land there since 1967. Developed in 1991 as part of the national "rails-to-trails" program, the 44-mile trail costs him money, he said, because he has to double-plant some crops near the trail. After he sued the county last year, the two sides agreed that Peterson would relinquish his claim to the trail and that the county would sign over a small portion of land Peterson didn't own but had been farming. Peterson said the county hasn't lived up to its end of the bargain. So earlier this month, he closed the gates. Humboldt County officials said they're negotiating again with Peterson but they haven't ruled out the possibility of criminal charges. Opposition to recreational trails has risen in cities as well as rural areas. Some Des Moines residents have complained about a proposed trail to eventually connect West Des Moines and Windsor Heights to Water Works Park, Gray's Lake Park and downtown. In 1997, residents of Des Moines' Beaverdale neighborhood organized opposition to the Inter-Urban Trail, which connects the neighborhood to a long trail running from downtown to Big Creek State Park. Hein, of the Natural Heritage Foundation, said landowners are most often concerned with trespassers, litter and decreased property value caused by trail activity, but those concerns typically evaporate after a trail is developed. "Once landowners see it, their fears are diminished," Hein said. "We have enough trails now that people understand that they're beneficial for the people of Iowa." Since 1984, the Iowa Trails Council has helped develop more than 700 miles of recreational trails as part of the rails-to-trails program. Council board member Tom Neenan said his organization is negotiating with Union Pacific to gain about 100 more miles of inactive Iowa rail land for five trails. Those 100 miles represent only a fraction of possible railroad beds that could be converted into recreation trails, experts say. Early in the 20th century, about 10,000 miles of active rail lines crisscrossed Iowa, said John Hey , executive officer for the Iowa Department of Transportation. "Rail lines were everywhere in the state," Hey said. Iowa still ranks 11th in the nation with 4,000 miles of active rail lines, he said. Most of the abandoned rail land in Iowa has become recreational trails, Hey said. But Neenan said a 1999 Iowa law that ended condemnation of agricultural land for recreational trails "has had a very bad impact on some trails." "Quite a few legislators voted for the bill who are normally pro-trail," Neenan said. The bill was pushed by Iowa Farm Bureau, said Don Petersen , the group's director of government relations. "The issue revolves around the fact that farmers think they have a right to their property," Petersen said. "We don't want the government to forcibly acquire property and turn it over to private organizations." Petersen said the legislation helped protect one farmer in Davenport from surrendering his land to the city to create a business park. But trails have been affected, too, Neenan said, most notably in Polk and Grundy counties, where landowners have refused to sell their land. As the dispute in Humboldt County continues, Peterson said only one person keeps him from taking the matter into his own hands. "The only thing stopping me from going in and tearing it out now is my wife," Peterson said. "She don't like no trouble, and she don't want none. I don't want none either, but I'm getting sick and tired of it."

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