Anyone who comes to the Driftless Region can see why it’s a natural gem. Rolling hills, steep bluffsides, plummeting valleys and peaking ridgetops. With such a unique Midwestern landscape, there’s often a conversation about the best way to use that land.
In January, it was announced that a new multi-use trail, officially named “Grandma’s Gateway,” would be built and installed on the hillside below Grandad Bluff, a relatively undeveloped space.
The trail would be roughly five miles of mixed-use trail, snaking up the bluffside from the streets below, 29th Street and Ebner Coulee Road.
But residents on those streets have shown concern about the trails, citing the city didn’t include the neighbors in the early conversations of the plan, worries about increased road traffic and environmental worries about the bluff.
The initial conversation for the trail began in 2018 when the city, partnering with the nonprofit Outdoors Recreation Alliance of La Crosse, received a $15,000 Trail Accelerator Grant from the International Mountain Bicycling Association to identify and plan three new trails along the blufflands of La Crosse. Both ORA and the city of La Crosse matched the grant, totaling the budget for this project at $30,000. Grandma’s Gateway is just the first phase of this plan.
But residents near the trail and access points were alarmed to find out the plan was moving ahead this year, some saying it was the first time they had heard of it.
“We have been upset that we have been excluded from this conversation,” said Christine Clair, who lives on 29th Street. “Because our concerns are not just for us and what we want. Our concerns are real and are for everybody.”
City officials say they made contact with the Bluffside Neighborhood Association three times, first in November 2018. But neighborhood groups have been criticized throughout the process, saying they don’t always get the information out to the entire neighborhood.
On Jan. 6, the parks department did send a letter to all residents near the trails, and said a larger conversation was started.
Mayor Tim Kabat said this small portion of trail is just a piece to a much larger plan, one that is briefly outlined in a report from 2016 from the Blufflands Coalition, that dreams of a trail that traipses across the bluffs of La Crosse County, connecting communities and giving more people access to the land.
“The gift from Ellen Hixon,” Mayor Kabat said, “to give people access to this beautiful space is something that this trail initiative, not only supports, but I think it takes it to the next level.”
Kabat said that these things are impossible for any one community to conquer, and it’s entirely dependent on volunteer groups and partnerships like the one the city has with ORA.
Although no official agreement was made with ORA and the city until 2019, the group has helped maintain and produce trails since its origin in the ‘90s, according to reports and city officials.
Formerly known as Human Powered Trails, the nonprofit group has grown significantly, and in 2018 reported that it spent more than $60,000 on trail maintenance.
“At the end of the day, whether it’s hiking trails or ice arenas or you name it, in order for the city of La Crosse to operate all these different amenities that we have,” Parks Director Jay Odegaard said, “we would never be able to maintain these things without these volunteer organizations.”
They most notably were instrumental in producing mountain biking trails in Hixon Forest, like the Vista and Vista 2 trails.
Will it increase traffic?
The city says that the access point is only meant to draw in neighborhood residents and shouldn’t increase traffic or parking, saying most would access by foot or bike directly.
But residents already have issues pulling in and out of driveways. 29th Street is a narrow road, and most driveways are at a steep incline. A Tribune reporter recently took a tour of the area with a resident and experienced pulling in and out of driveways, where you had almost no sight of oncoming traffic until you were partially into the road, even when the street was mostly free of parked cars.
Residents fear having more pedestrian and car traffic will put everyone at risk.
“I’m telling you,” Clair said to the parks board Jan. 16, “we know our neighborhood and we’re concerned about the safety issues.”
The city said it plans to monitor the site as the plan progresses, and commissioned a third-party review on the traffic concerns that state it doesn’t anticipate an uptick in traffic or parking near the access point.
Climate changes and the bluff
Trail projects like these don’t typically include extensive environmental testing, according to the parks department. They rely on advice from the Environmental Leadership Forum when planning, which is comprised of representatives from groups like the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Clair and other residents filed an open records request for any reports that ELF may have drawn up when consulting the Grandma’s Gateway project, but didn’t get anything and instead said she received a call from Odegaard saying there were no documents on the consultation.
In 2005, the city of La Crosse Planning Department put out a comprehensive plan for Hixon Forest, a wooded area that cascades the bluffs and was donated to the city more than a century ago for preservation.
The 15-year-old plan is the most current plan that the city has for the forest, and it largely recommends not developing more recreational trails in most of the forest.
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Specifically, it suggests that 91.6% of the nearly 740 acres of forest is not suitable for new trail development.
Grandma’s Gateway and all six of the trails the parks department has built since this 2005 report are not on the roughly 7% of land deemed suitable for trail development.
And in recent USDA soil tests, most of the La Crosse area is indicated as seriously hazardous for future erosion and unsuitable for trails.
So why has the city continued to build trails despite these reports? Trails can help them protect the land from environmental impacts more, they said.
“We’ve evolved and we’ve learned more,” Mayor Kabat said about the way they’ve developed trails since the 2005 report came out.
The third-party review the parks department commissioned also stated that the trail design for Grandma’s Gateway will have no direct cause on potential erosion.
“Could a large rock fall off the bluff? Yeah, there’s always that kind of unknown,” said Leah Burns, the recreation coordinator for the parks department. “But is this [trail] going to cause something like that to happen? I’m gonna say no. It’s an act of God.”
The parks department did close one trail, though, after it determined it was causing more erosion and damage to the bluff.
The TNT trail, also known as the This Trail is Not a Trail-trail, was closed in recent years when it was discovered it was contributing to increased water runoff and washouts. The design of the trail, according to Burns, went straight up the bluff, following the natural runoff line. Increased foot traffic dug the line out more, making room for more runoff.
“It’s unsustainable, no matter what we do to it,” Burns said, and the trail was closed to stop further erosion in the bluff.
City officials say they recognize the environmental challenges the area is expected to face in the coming years, and said that the trails can help them address such issues as litter, washouts and limit erosion caused by unauthorized foot traffic by giving maintenance crews more access to the bluff.
“If we were able to take a more active role in that now,” Kabat said of the current state of the hillside, “that to me is going to improve the health of this ecosystem.”
Grandma’s Gateway will partially be built on existing rogue trails and an old quarry road known as the “Bittersweet Trail.” Neighbors say the trails are hardly ever used, some saying they’ve never seen anyone hiking up from their street to the face of the bluff.
On a trek up the hillside, a reporter from the Tribune found existing trails, some from animals, and vandalism and trash, especially closer to the bluff.
And when faced with uncertain impacts caused by climate change, the city sees the trails as a tool to protect the blufflands against that as well.
“We’ve been dealing with the changing climate for years now, and ever since I’ve been mayor we’ve seen the hottest and wettest years really on record,” Kabat said. “So in reality, we have to deal with it right now. We can’t just wait to see if there’s some future answer that comes out of this ... We can’t wait.”
While the final plans for the trail were approved last month by the parks department and need no further action from a larger body, the zoning of two land parcels that the city owns will be finally approved by City Council on Thursday.
As the rezoning of the lots — from residential to conservancy — has made its way through the system, it’s been used as a tool for the debate to continue on what the best purpose of our blufflands are. Some board members have even motioned for the zoning to be referred for future meetings so the project could get further review before moving forward.
“I really believe that the city is doing everything we can to address the concerns that have been relayed by the people,” Kabat said. “If it’s a ‘pause’ to stop the project permanently? You know, that’s not something I am interested in. This has been part of our long-term efforts at improving the health and vitality of these blufflands.”
“I’m not quite sure what hitting pause at this point, how that would add value to what we’re trying to do,” Kabat said.
Odegaard said that if the rezoning were voted down it would be enough for him to hit “pause,” though he’s not sure what additional information he could get given more time to investigate, emphasizing that a true environmental impact study would cost more than $100,000 and could damage the bluff indefinitely with the machinery needed.
The parks department is planning on holding a public engagement meeting in the coming weeks to gather feedback and concerns from community members and bring them to the park board.
As for the residents on 29th Street and Ebner Coulee Road, they’ll keep fighting the plan. Clair has reached out to try to get the plan back on the park board agenda, and said that if the trail was put in, she wouldn’t use it.
“It’s bad. It’s really ugly. I think it needs to stop,” Clair said. “We need to back off, we need to really look at this in a big-picture approach.”