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Mississippi River Trail designated as part of national system

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 17, 2012 - WASHINGTON – From the Clarksville heights to the Alton bluffs and the historic St. Louis riverfront, the 121-mile Mississippi River water trail has been designated by the Interior Department to be part of a new national water trails program.

The announcement Monday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar makes the Mississippi water trail – which the Army Corps of Engineers and partners began developing in 2006 – eligible for technical expertise and resources from the National Park Service to “promote the development and recognition of the trail.”

Kimberly Rea, the recreation manager at the Corps’ rivers project office in West Alton, said the Mississippi river trail – which features campsites, directions and rest areas for paddlers – already is attracting kayakers and canoeists from around the globe, as well as many from the region’s active paddling clubs.

“It’s a validation that we have a quality river trail,” said Rea. “We were one of the first five to meet the standards and be named to this new river trail program.”

The Corps began developing the water trail – which complements hiking and biking trails along the river – at Saverton, Mo., in 2006, and has since expanded it southward through the various dam “pools” and river stretches. The trail's campsites and rest areas now extend nearly to St. Louis, with a campsite at Maple Island just above the city. It also will include the lower part of the Illinois River to its confluence at the Mississippi.

The 121-mile water trail from Saverton to St. Louis is “lined with majestic bluffs, steeped in history, features abundant wildlife, and provides plenty of places to stop and relax whether it be a remote island or a river town,” the Interior Department said in its announcement, which also designated national water trails in Kansas, Alabama and Georgia.

The Corps is now trying to extend the Mississippi river trail southward from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill., although Rea said that effort faces challenges because – with no locks and dams on the river below St. Louis – the Corps does not own land for campsites along the river. Rights will have to be negotiated with private or business landowners along the route, she said.

In announcing the Mississippi trail, Salazar said his department was “committing to work with state and local partners to increase water-based outdoor recreation, encourage community stewardship, and promote tourism that fuels local economies.” The new water trails program is part of the administration’s Great Outdoors initiative, which aims to restore rivers and expand outdoor recreation.

The Mississippi River water trail “encourages people to reconnect to the river by exploring and experiencing the river from the water,” said Rea. The trip planner page offers trip suggestions for beginners, intermediate paddlers, and advanced users. 

She said compatible hiking and biking trails run along the Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Byway. The wildlife along the river route includes plenty of birding, as the Mississippi River Flyway hosts some 40 percent of the nation's migratory birds through the spring and fall migrations.

"The maps and campsites are especially attractive to kayakers and canoists from  abroad," said Rea, noting that a few of those visitors are trying to paddle the entire length of the Mississippi in stages.

Salazar set up the national water trails system this year as a class of national recreational trails under the National Trails System Act of 1968. The Interior Department said the designation of the Mississippi and other water trails “acknowledges not only the recreation values of the trails but also the excellent stewardship of the state, local communities and other partners who maintain their natural beauty and integrity.”

The Interior secretary said the network of national water trails is "not only connecting people to the outdoors and supporting conservation efforts for our scenic rivers, but also supporting tourism and the recreation economy in nearby communities."

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