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First phase of SIU’s premier multipurpose trail system opens to public

May 03, 2021, Christi Mathis

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CARBONDALE, Ill. — Years of planning. Countless hours of hard work. And now, Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Touch of Nature Multiuse Trail System may be destined to become one of the Midwest’s premier mountain biking parks. It’s not only the first of its kind in the region, but also the only university-affiliated multiuse trail of this scope in the country.

The first phase of the trails project, comprising about 10 miles of natural surface single track trail, is now ready for use by bikers, hikers, runners and walkers. When completed, the trail system at Touch of Nature Environmental Center, about eight miles south of Carbondale on Giant City Road, will encompass about 30 miles of stacked loop trails, an adult terrain park, a children’s terrain park, an event center space and other trail features.

“Touch of Nature is an example of SIU Carbondale’s longstanding partnership with the community, serving all of us since it was established in 1949,” said Chancellor Austin Lane. “Opening this multiuse trail furthers that commitment by providing outdoor learning spaces for academic programs and enhancing the quality of life and economic opportunities for Southern Illinois.”

Launched May 1

The official launch came May 1 during a small ribbon-cutting and grand opening ceremony led by Lori Stettler, SIU vice chancellor for student affairs, Tom Davenport, Carbondale Chamber of Commerce president, JD Tanner, Touch of Nature director, and State Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg.

Mountain biking is big business these days, and according to Tanner’s research, the trail enhanced with wooden bridges could draw 55,000 to 75,000 users annually. Moreover, he said, the trails will provide outdoor learning spaces for academic programs, including recreation professions, forestry and wildlife biology.

“Touch of Nature is already a go-to place for education and recreation in the region and beyond. The project will enhance and foster that reputation,” said Charles Ruffner, a forestry professor who worked on the project.

Years in the planning

Conceived by Tanner, planning for this project dates back to 2014. Numerous campus units and grants have played a part in bringing it to fruition. Thus far, more than $330,000 from many sources has been raised toward the project.

To start, Tanner and graduate assistant Molly Maxwell raised $22,000 to bring the International Biking Association to the center to develop a conceptual trail plan. A series of grants and donations came next. SIU’s forestry department and Touch of Nature partnered to secure $47,000 in Green Fund grants to develop a land management plan. Tanner and Ruffner led the team on the project, which included an inventory of trees and forest data. Students and faculty worked together, giving students practical experience to supplement their classroom learning.

After receiving two more Green Fund grants in 2017, the project got a big boost the following year with a $200,000 Recreational Trails Program grant administered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The grant funded construction of 7.5 miles of trails to go with the 2.5 miles built through previous grants, donations and volunteer efforts. Funding also came from the Alan and Pat Rausenberger family, E.T. Simonds, The Rotary Club of Carbondale – Breakfast, Dirty South Roubaix 100K Gravel Road Race, the Bike Surgeon of Carbondale, SIU Credit Union, Touch of Nature staff and individual donors.

Thousands of hours given

Volunteers have been the backbone of the project, Tanner said. Students from the recreation, forestry and archeology departments assisted with the archeological and botanical surveys. Before the pandemic, regular trail-building days were held, and volunteers came from far and wide to help. 

Isaiah Tanner was a big driving force in the construction, initially lending a hand as a graduate student and continuing to help as a part-time TON employee. Volunteers from the Youth Conservation Corps in Oklahoma, tribal teams from the Shawnee Conservation Corps, participants from the American Hiking Society’s Volunteer Vacation program and scores of individuals and groups from the region and far beyond have donated their time and energy to bring concept to reality.

A unique teaching tool

When the pandemic affected Taryn Bieri’s student employee position as an environmental educator at TON, the center tapped into her background as a forestry major to help on the project. Bieri, who is from Prairie du Rocher, completed her bachelor’s degree in forestry at SIU in 2020 and is now a master’s student in forestry.

She got to work flagging the trail, working on slopes, trying to help prevent erosion and helping maintain the variability. She, along with her husband, Ray, and other staff and volunteers, began removing elms and other woody barriers to construct the trails, working carefully to avoid taking out oaks and hickory trees as well as St. John’s wort and other flowering/pollinator plants. 

She helped build a back slope on the upper hillside of the trail with a gradient to avoid erosion. Bieri said the months she spent working at TON on the project were an incredible hands-on learning experience.

“I’ve built a regular hiking trail before, but it was really rewarding to build a truly sustainable trail,” Bieri said. “The environment on each trail is different. You will see a lot of different ecotypes; it is very diverse.”

Trails open to all

The trails are open daily from dawn to dusk and everyone is welcome, from beginners to those looking for more difficult rides.   

Check online for trail conditions before visiting. Trails aren’t open during very wet times to prevent damage.

The first phase of the trail was completed in December. Just recently, the main parking lot was finished and wayfinding signage has been installed. Meanwhile, work on the next phase of the project, encompassing 7-8 miles of trail, has already begun. The trail has been designed and flagged, and funding has been secured for archeological and botany surveys.

Keep an eye on the website for project updates.

Donations are still welcome online through the Southern Illinois University Foundation. There are naming opportunities available for park features, a mile of trail or the entire trail system; interested parties should contact Sarah Dailey at the SIU Foundation at sarad@foundation.siu.edu.

There are also opportunities for volunteers to get involved in the trail expansion as well as in the project’s educational components.

For more information about Touch of Nature or the new multiuse trail system, visit ton.siu.edu, call 618-453-1121 or email tonec@siu.edu.