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A transcontinental rails-to-trails project is planned to cross areas of Wyoming

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

The Great American Rail-Trail was first announced in 2019 and is a 3,700-mile transcontinental rails-to-trails conversion project that is being undertaken in 11 states and Washington, D.C. Several hundred miles could cross parts of the Cowboy State in what would connect the east and west coasts in the first coast-to-coast project of its kind.

“The Great American Rail-Trail is an effort from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to connect the east and west coast of our country with a non-motorized, multi-use trail system,” said Patrick Harrington, manager of the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Office (WORO). “The route itself comes in on the east side of the state around Lusk and heads over to Casper. From there, it'll head north in the conceptual plan through [the Bighorn Basin], and then start heading east towards Yellowstone, and it ends up into Montana just out of the North Gate of Yellowstone.”

Only a few short segments in Wyoming have been designed for multi-use trail purposes and are largely centered in municipalities. These include the Casper Rail Trail, part of the Platte River Trails trust and a paved section through Glenrock. Other trails that would be connected by the Great American Rail-Trail, route through the state include the East Bighorn River Trail, the Greybull River Walk and the Beck Lake Park Bike Trail.

Currently, Wyoming’s only major rail trail of length is the 21-mile Medicine Bow Rail Trail in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Albany County, which was opened in September 2007. The trail is constructed on the route of the former Hahn’s Peak and Pacific Railroad, later part of the Union Pacific Railroad, that ran between Laramie and Coalmont, Colorado in that state’s North Park region. Rail operations ended in 1996 and tracks were taken up in 1999. The Medicine Bow Rail Trail would not be part of the Great American Rail-Trail, but has proven popular with outdoor recreationists.

“There are a lot of grassroots efforts [for Wyoming’s portion of the trail and] one in particular is with the Platte River Trails group,” Harrington said. “They're out of Casper looking at expanding all the way to Douglas on some existing rail bed, and so the grassroots is definitely focused in on this project in some places.”

There has been interest from several parties in different communities, in addition to local citizens that are advocating for the project.

“There's movers and shakers in some of these small communities who see what will be a tremendous economic impact,” he said. “I think the headwaters economics study on the Great American Rail-Trail is just over $13 million a year in economic impact in Wyoming, and so I think there's some of these local tourism, chamber of commerce oriented folks who are looking at this and see the impact it might have in their own local community.”

A definitive route has yet to be finalized for the trail, but it would most likely make use of existing abandoned rail beds in eastern and central Wyoming. This includes the former route of the Chicago and North Western Railway’s (C&NW) Cowboy Line from the Nebraska state line near Van Tassell through to Orin Junction, Douglas, Glenrock, Casper, Powder River and Shoshoni. It was abandoned during World War II.

“This route planning is probably the most significant hurdle and connecting those pieces that are preexisting,” Harrington said. “There's obviously private landowner concerns being probably the biggest [thing]. From my perspective [we want to be] respectful of those local landowners and that anything we do has real community support. That's the interest of my office is ensuring that the route makes sense to those people who live next to it.”

The Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) is also working with the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Office on plans for potential routings that may not be routed on abandoned rail beds. The plan is to have the trail completely routed off of roadways, even if sections of it are initially located on them.

The Wyoming legislature has not allocated any money for the project, though WYDOT and the Outdoor Recreation Office could award grants for its construction. Public-private partnerships, as well as private and local funding, may also be used for the trail. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy estimates that the total 3,700 mile route, which is 53 percent complete, will cost around $1 billion, which would be offset in five years as a result of visitor spending. Making use of the state’s newly established $50 million recreation trust fund for outdoor recreation could also help as well.

Harrington believes there could be movement within the next five years for trail development. This would likely include work being undertaken between Casper and Douglas where interested parties have expressed a desire to convert this section of railbed. Crushed rock or dirt surfaces would provide the covering for the trail with the objective of making it wheelchair accessible.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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