NEBRASKA CITY, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — A cease-fire has been reached in a years-long fight between a farmer and a natural resources district over a hike-bike trail.
The fight boils down to a disagreement over who should pay for fencing to separate the farmer’s land from the Steamboat Trace Trail. Otoe County farmer Bob Trail said he expected the Nemaha Natural Resources District to pay for the fence. NRD officials say they couldn’t do that for one farmer and not other landowners.
Don’t fence me in
The fence fight gained urgency in April, after Nebraska City cyclist Chad Larson found the trail blocked. Larson hit his brakes about halfway down the trail, near the Nemaha County line, just before hitting a fence that straddled the trail.
Larson emailed a photograph of the fence to the NRD, warning that a cyclist could get injured.
“It was hard to see,” Larson said. “There was no warning.”
Good fences, good neighbors
Trail said he extended the fence across the trail to contain his cattle after 2019 flooding damaged a fence on his property.
“We weren’t trying to keep the people out,” he said. “We were trying to keep the cattle in.”
The NRD, which manages the trail, eventually sent certified letters to the Trails about getting the fences off the path. Eventually, the NRD invited the Trails to a meeting where NRD officials and their lawyer explained that the farmer could not legally block the trail.
But the stalemate continued until earlier this month. Then, days before cyclists took part in the Radler Bike Festival on Saturday, Trail removed the fence blocking the trail.
He declined to explain why the family extended the fence across the trail instead of repairing the damaged fence on his land alongside the trail, which is what they ended up doing.
The farmer said he was frustrated because the NRD’s former manager had agreed to pay for fencing along the trail, just as the NRD had done along his property on the other side of the trail.
The current manager, Kyle Hauschild, rejected that approach. He said it would have cost NRD taxpayers $8,000 to install the Trails’ fence.
“Our fear was if we’re going to build a fence for one landowner, how can we build 46 miles?” Hauschild said, adding that fencing would be needed on both sides of the 23-mile trail.
The trail runs from Nebraska City to two miles south of Brownville.
The Trails and the trail
Trail described his problems with the trail, including people illegally riding four-wheelers and cyclists and joggers leaving trash on private property.
The NRD reached out to the Trails to see if they could agree on a fix. At one point, the NRD offered to put up the fence flanking the trail if the Trails provided the materials. The Trails declined.
The Trails placed cattle crossings on the trail, Hauschild said.
More than once, NRD staff found fencing blocking the trail and moved it, only to find it back again hours later.
The trail runs along an abandoned railroad line. The Trail family has long argued that the railroad’s rights to the land should have reverted to the family when the railroad abandoned the track in the 1990s.
How rail-banking works
The railroad maintains rights to the land, in case one day it needs to build a spur. It “rail-banked” the land under the federal Rails to Trails law that allows such land to be used for trails.
Dean Edson, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts, which represents NRDs, said it’s rare for a landowner to block a trail. He couldn’t recall the last time that occurred.
What got things moving this month was an NRD call to the Arbor Day Foundation, which was planning a bike ride on the Steamboat Trace Trail for the first time.
Someone at the foundation called Otoe County Board member Jim Thurman, who said he reached out to the county attorney and sheriff to explain the federal law.
Otoe County Sheriff Colin Caudill said he didn’t know what to do when he heard the trail had been blocked. He said it was like someone putting a fence across the sidewalk in front of someone else’s house.
“I’ve never heard of this happening before,” he said. “It’s such a rarity that I don’t know what to say about it.”
Why it matters
Thurman, who owned a bike shop in Nebraska City for 35 years, said he understands that some landowners don’t like the trail.
But, he said, the value of thousands of visitors to the stores and shops and restaurants along the route outweigh any individual landowner’s inconveniences.
These trails “provide local residents with places to walk and bike and also draw many out-of-town visitors” who contribute to local economies, said Julie Harris of Bike Walk Nebraska.
“We’re glad to see this trail back open for business because we know all of the small communities along the route benefit,” Harris said.
NRD officials said Saturday’s ride went off without a hitch.
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