Bipartisan group improving Ohio’s outdoors opportunities

A bipartisan effort to improve Ohio’s 3,000-plus-mile network of trails, headed in part by a Warren County state lawmaker, has been an example for other states in driving improvement of outdoors opportunities, officials said.

The bipartisan Ohio Legislative Trails Caucus, thought to be the first of its kind, is headed by two state senators, Steve Wilson, a Republican from Warren County, and Sean O’Brien, a Democrat from Trumbull County.

RELATED: New Ohio senator picked from four-person field

About 30 state lawmakers comprise the caucus, which is supported by partners including Yellow Springs Council President Brian Housh, regional coordinator for the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy.

Wisconsin and Michigan have similar organizations. Housh said he was also advising Indiana trail advocates.

“Now it’s spreading like wildfire,” Housh said last week after talking with New Yorkers about forming their own caucus.

“I spend most of my time now spreading the word and helping these efforts in other states.” Housh said.

Formed in March 2017, the Ohio caucus recently recognized the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) for committing $7 million from the Clean Ohio Trails Fund to reimburse 14 counties for new trails, trail extensions, land acquisition and bridges.

MORE: New maps highlight growing trail network

“They’ve been a very important part of the trails caucus,” said Wilson, a retired banker who walked the 272-mile, Ohio-to-Erie Trail from Cincinnati to Cleveland.

Over the next two years, the caucus plans to create a program to speed development of the trail network, establish a dedicated trail maintenance funding source and expand funding for trail network development.

“The Ohio trails network will be accessible and provide trail opportunities within 10 minutes of most Ohioans, representing a partnership of elected officials, government agencies, trail users and organizations, businesses, community groups and concerned citizens,” according to the caucus’ draft vision.

An April 2018 report by the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators said the Ohio Legislative Trails Caucus was the first of its kind.

Last Spring, the U.S. House of Representatives formed its first Outdoor Recreation Caucus, while state caucuses are springing up around the country.

“It all started in Ohio,” said Housh.

The group plans to seek funding from sources including bonds, gas tax increases and dedication of recreation-related sales tax revenues.

In March, Wilson and ODNR announced a comprehensive database of over 3,200 miles of trails – and expectations the network would grow to 5,000 miles.

At the caucus’ urging, the legislature declared 2018 “Ohio’s Year of the Trail.”

The caucus grew out of a conversation in April 2016 between O’Brien, a triathlete who at the time was running for the state office, and Steve Walker of the Buckeye Trail Association, Housh said.

Walker brought the idea to the Ohio Trails Partnership, also including Rails to Trails, the Ohio Horseman’s Association and the Central Ohio Mountain Biking Organization.

The group organized an event near the Statehouse in October 2017, enlisted members and the caucus’ work has grown from there.

“We have encouraged our elected officials to join the caucus,” said Laura Estandia, executive director of Bike Miami Valley.

In Wilson’s district, $300,000 in state funding is planned for realigning 4,000 feet of the Lebanon-Countryside YMCA Trail and repaving some of the oldest sections of the Little Miami Trail, which runs from Springfield south into Hamilton County. The state is funding another $800,000 for bank restoration and erosion control of the trail.

MORE: Bike trail plan approved in Warren County

Trails are seen by some as economic-development tools, as well as health, recreation and transportation enhancements.

“We look for places to expand the network,” Wilson said.

Ohio has competition.

“Wisconsin is losing the trails race. Wisconsin had been the national leader in trails since we built the Elroy Sparta Trail, the nation’s first rail trail. We continued to hold our early lead by continuing to building more miles of trails than any other state,” Dave Schlabowske, deputy director of the Wisconsin Legislative Trails Caucus said in an October 2018 post announcing the formation of this caucus.

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