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Advocates push for new trail system inside Alexandria

Rapid development may close opportunity, they say.

ALEXANDRIA โ€” An idea to turn flood easements into 13 miles of trail in the heart of Alexandria has gained traction with the involvement of The Nature Conservancy.

Tim Schoonhoven, Alexandria city engineer, said the idea to create a new trail system has been around for years, but that the nonprofit Nature Conservancy gave it a shot of new energy when it got involved last year.

Since then, Schoonhoven and Todd Holman, Mississippi Headwaters Program director for The Nature Conservancy, have been drumming up support for the trail by speaking to civic groups and elected officials. Last spring, the City of Alexandria and the Alexandria School Board passed resolutions in support.

"The headwaters is usually where the best water is, the cleanest water," Holman told a group gathered at the Legacy of the Lakes Museum on Sept. 19. "I'm focused on the Mississippi main stem and projects within it that keep clean water clean."

In the 1980s, Alexandria had to deal with frequent flooding. Local government formed the Alexandria Flood Board, which bought easements to create ditches.

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The easements ranged from 15 to 100 feet wide and the ditches carried excess water from near Target and Covenant Church, past Discovery Middle School and Angelina's, and eventually to Lake L'Homme Dieu.

Schoonhoven said the easements cross few roads and pass some beautiful areas, including Lake Connie, known commonly as Buttermilk Slough.

"If you kayak on Lake Connie, especially in the springtime, you could be in the Boundary Waters," he said. "And you are right in the middle of the City of Alexandria. It's absolutely gorgeous."

Since its founding in 1951, The Nature Conservancy is a global organization best known for preserving tracts of environmentally significant land, such as migratory bird habitat.

In recent years, however, they have added a new dimension, and that is protecting land within developed communities, Holman said.

The flood easements in Alexandria, which run on a north-south axis through the city, would continue to protect the city from flooding, said Schoonhoven. It could be engineered to provide trails, probably paved and wide enough for users to pass each other. Signs explaining the history and use of the trail system would provide an educational element. It would generate economic gains by attracting bicyclists to the area, and it would also be engineered to protect water quality in the lakes, and ultimately the Long Prairie River watershed, which drains into the Mississippi River.

Holman called trails "long parks," not only used by bicyclists, but parents pushing strollers, the elderly, and children with sidewalk chalk. This trail could help people walk or bike to work or to stores.

But organizers say the project itself is years โ€” maybe decades โ€” away from completion. But they say that the city is developing so quickly that if they don't act soon, the opportunity will disappear. The next step, they say, is putting together a new cost estimate so that they can seek grants.

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994. Driven by curiosity and a desire to learn about the United States, Karen Tolkkinen has covered local news from Idaho to New Hampshire to Alabama and landing at the Echo Press in Alexandria in 2017.
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