The Georgia Coast Rail-Trail that opened last spring in Camden County slowly but surely is growing and eventually could make its way to Liberty County.
Plans call for the 68-mile trail, which is being built on an existing, raised railroad bed, to stretch from Kingsland to Riceboro as it winds around marshes and crosses over 43 different tidal rivers and creeks, which organizers say will make it ideal for walkers, joggers, cyclists and horseback riders.
Last spring the first three-and-a-half-mile section of the trail opened in Camden County, but development has hit a snag. The abandoned railroad bed that will be converted into the trail snakes over some private land, halting construction of the trail through four counties.In Liberty County, about 50 percent of the private land needed for the trail is owned by Plum Creek, the nation’s largest private landowner. Plum Creek owns more than 90 percent of the total 68-mile trail.
"The effort for our end has been on the back burner," Riceboro Mayor Bill Austin said of the trail. "We are very excited about it and would love to have it. I think it could revitalize our town."
Austin also is working on securing grants to fund the project, provided the land is approved.
Potential liability issues stopped Plum Creek, which manufactures timber products, from participating in the trail right away, Plum Creek director of communications Kathy Budinick said.
"In 2008, Plum Creek explored the prospect of working with the Rails to Trails project. We reviewed our lands that were identified for the trail and considered the implications of this proposed project to our business conducted on adjacent lands," Budinick said.
Several issues regarding the use of Plum Creek’s land have been identified, including operational access to harvest sites, operations between logging trucks, and safety and liability issues for trail users.
"We asked how these activities could be maintained while providing a safe environment for those who use the trail, and explained that these concerns would require solutions in order for the company to consider participating in the project," Budinick said. "While Plum Creek supports recreational access in the state, we need to successfully operate businesses in this important wood basket, and in the marketplace."
Although the development of Liberty County’s rail section has been stalled, other areas are moving forward to open the trail. Once a month an executive Georgia Coast Rail-Trail committee meets to discuss which phase of the project should be taken up next.
"The board has elected to work the trail in phases starting on the Kingsland end. The first three and a half miles of the trail were opened on June 5 (last year) and extend both north and south from White Oak," Austin said. "The next phase of the trail is a section running north easterly from the Altamaha Park across the Altamaha River into McIntosh County. The board is looking for grants to help facilitate this effort."
The Riceboro mayor said he and board members believe the trail would benefit the area economically and improve the quality of life.
"Trails have been proven to be attractive to developers," Austin said.
"The goal of the nonprofit Coastal Georgia Rails to Trails Inc. is to transform the entire abandoned CSX rail corridor into a 10-foot wide trail for walkers, cyclists, joggers, equestrians and nature lovers," according to the Georgia Coastal Trail website.
On June 4, which is National Trails Day, the nonprofit organization plans to open a new one-and-one-fourth-mile section of the trail in Woodbine, said Leslie Lampkin, a Rails to Trails board member.
Lampkin also said committee members are working closely with the designers of the Silver Comet Trail, which is located 13 miles northwest of Atlanta, to develop the trail from a nature-enthusiast’s perspective.
"This is a 68-mile trail and it will be developed in stages. We haven’t started working on Liberty County yet. No, we don’t have a timetable," Lampkin said. "We figure we’re still on the front end. It’s a huge undertaking and we’re working on it step by step."