Wednesday was such a nice day that I decided to walk the battlefield. No, not the Boonville battlefield where the opening skirmish of the Civil War will be re-enacted this weekend. I wanted to tread the territory that has triggered such fierce conflict between two modern groups that are natural allies most of the time – Columbia’s bicyclists and birders.
As you’ve probably read, the issue is whether to extend the planned Scott’s Branch Trail, which eventually will connect Bonnie View Park with the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail, across the southern edge of the Audubon Society Nature Sanctuary. The PedNet Coalition – the bicyclists and hikers – insists that’s the best route. The birders – the Audubon Society – say with equal fervor, no.
(I’m neither a bicyclist nor a birder. I do have a bike rotting its tires in my garage, and I did pay Audubon dues for one year so I could get the magazine. But when I’m outdoors, I’m usually on foot, watching for snakes and poison ivy. This issue has me conflicted.)
My wandering Wednesday convinced me that it’s a fine nature sanctuary, though not exactly the forever pristine wilderness some of the more vociferous Auduboners suggest. In fact, it’s an abandoned farm with a fine stand of fescue along the southern border. I pleasurably followed the winding path through deep woods and along the creek bank, listening to the cicadas and birds I couldn’t identify. I was alone. It felt far distant from the bustle of Hy-Vee and Walmart, just a few blocks away. That’s well worth preserving, surely.
Then I walked down Cunningham Street to Chapel Hill, the route the birders would prefer for the new trail. That was also a pleasant stroll, until I reached busy Chapel Hill, with its fading “sharrows” and narrow sidewalks. I wouldn’t have wanted my kids biking there. In fact, to make that route work safely, a new eight-foot-wide pedway would have to be constructed to lead to Scott Boulevard. There are no plans and no money for that in the city budget.
On the third hand, a trail through the sanctuary would lead into Dublin Park, where a primitive path now follows the creek through lowland subject to flooding. So an elevated boardwalk would probably be required, along with switchbacks down the steep slope on the sanctuary property.
It’s complicated, and I admire my councilman, Daryl Dudley, for working so hard to reach a solution before the Columbia City Council takes up the issue at its July 18 meeting. He convened a second public conversation Wednesday evening. I went to that, too.
Advocates on both sides replayed their arguments. For a minute, I thought compromise was in sight when Professor Howard Hinkel, the Columbia Audubon Society president, rose to say his group is working with city staff on a possible route that would cut across just the southeast corner of the sanctuary to bring the new trail from Bonnie View Park to the sanctuary entrance at Cunningham. It wasn’t going to be that simple.
Karl Kruse, former councilman, longtime environmentalist and current chairman of the PedNet Coalition, responded that his board still wants the trail to run across the sanctuary to connect with Dublin Park. Even when he’s being stubborn, Karl always sounds like the voice of reason. “It’s a very insignificant piece of land” at issue, he offered.
Wrong, and not only wrong but threatening to the very nature of the sanctuary, including its newly fledged bluebirds, responded the Audubon contingent, who made up most of the 40 or so in attendance at the Activity and Recreation Center.
Councilman Dudley offered some placating words: No bike riding, no dogs and no hard surface on any part of any trail through the sanctuary, he pledged. Not good enough.
Karl noted, quietly, that the deed granting the sanctuary land to the *Audubon Society specifies that it not be developed but allows for pedestrian and bicycle trails. Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood, who spent the session standing in the back, mainly looking bemused, confirmed to me afterward that Karl’s statement was accurate.
Mike told me that his department is ready to start building the trail from Rollins Road in the north end of Bonnie View Park. What’s unknown is whether it will just run straight south and connect with Weaver Street, turn west to Cunningham or continue on to Dublin Park.
I have no idea what the City Council will decide, or even what Daryl Dudley will recommend. I left the meeting confident of just one thing, that Karl’s summary was correct.
“Everyone feels passionate about this, and we should,” he said. “We all love Columbia.”
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.