Trails advocates call for fixing flood damage from 2019 on Cowboy Trail

Users now must detour miles off the trail in Neligh area due to washouts from ‘bomb cyclone’

By: - March 1, 2023 5:00 am
cowboy trail

An aerial photo shows a section of the Cowboy Trail east of Long Pine in Brown County that was washed out by historic flooding in March 2019. (Eric Fowler/NEBRASKAland Magazine, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)

LINCOLN — Jason Buss and his family like to vacation on Nebraska’s Cowboy Trail, biking in the Neligh area, camping at a city park and taking in a movie at one of the state’s few drive-in movie theaters.

But the “bomb cyclone” flood of 2019 pushed the Elkhorn River out of its banks, washing out the limestone trail in several locations and carving a new channel around a trail bridge.

A bike ride from Clearwater to Tilden, for instance, now requires 10 miles of detours off the Cowboy Trail and onto nearby gravel roads, Buss said, which poses a safety threat and spoils a scenic ride.

Should have been fixed ‘long time ago’

On Tuesday, Buss, a Central City resident who serves as president of the Nebraska Trails Foundation, joined other trail advocates in testifying in favor of increased state funding to repair and maintain the trail, which spans most of northern Nebraska.

“We have in Nebraska a really great asset. We just need help to maintain this resource,” he told the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

After the hearing, Buss lamented that the flood damage should have been fixed “a long time ago.”

“We wouldn’t accept any other road being detoured indefinitely,” he said.

Cowboy Trail
Bikers cross the bridge over the Niobrara River near Valentine on the Cowboy Trail. (Courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is seeking increased funding to repair and maintain the Cowboy Trail, which extends nearly 190 miles through 20 communities, from Norfolk to Valentine.

67,000 users

Trail counters showed about 67,000 users on the trail between May and October last year.

The commission, which manages the trail, is asking for $200,000 a year for maintenance and planning, as well as $750,000 over the next two years to provide a 10% match of Federal Emergency Management Agency grants to make flood repairs.

Game and Parks requests

The trail funding was among several requests made by Tim McCoy, the director of Game and Parks, to the Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

They included funds to plan for a new swimming pool at Fort Robinson State Park, a “themed” shooting range at Buffalo Bill’s Ranch in North Platte, five new game wardens, and additional money for a pheasant restoration plan.

Game and Parks also is asking for $313,000 over the next two years to replace washed-out culverts on Cedar and Plum Creeks that FEMA has deemed don’t qualify for federal emergency funds.

The Cowboy Trail, the former Chicago & Northwestern railroad line from Norfolk to Chadron, was granted to the state 30 years ago. When its full length of 321 miles is finally completed, it will be the longest rails-to-trails conversion in the United States.

It is part of the Great American Rail Trail, which, when finished, would connect Washington, D.C., to Washington State with a series of recreational trails.

Cowboy Trail
The tall bridge spanning Long Pine Creek is one of the most scenic spots on the Cowboy Trail (Courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)

But Buss said maintenance funding, to repair washouts, mow and spray for weeds, has always been an issue for the Cowboy Trail. He said it was frustrating that the Katy Trail in Missouri gets $6,000 per mile for maintenance, and the Mickelson Trail in South Dakota’s Black Hills is also well funded.

“Those are states where Nebraskans travel to use their trails when they could be using ours,” Buss said.

Nebraska relies on volunteers

Instead, Nebraska trails often rely on volunteers for maintenance, he said.

Chuck Griffith, the vice president of the Trails Foundation, told the committee that he is part of a four-man crew — all over 70 years of age — that mow, spray and repair the Dark Island Trail between Central City and Marquette, in central Nebraska. 

High school students, he said, helped clean up a segment of the Cowboy Trail from Gordon to Rushville.

221 bridges, 154 culverts on trail

Griffith said it is challenging for Game and Parks to maintain the trail because of its length, because it includes 221 bridges and 154 culverts and because no fee or park permit is required to ride it. That’s why additional state funds are needed, he and Buss said.

Among the groups that use the Cowboy Trail is a group of military veterans with physical and behavioral disabilities. It’s also the trail used for the Tour de Nebraska, a 35-year-old bicycle ride that draws 500 riders.

“We owe it to groups like that to have a safer trail,” Griffith said.

The Appropriations Committee took no action on the funding request by the Game and Parks Commission. The committee will finalize its state budget recommendation later in the 2023 session.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.