Making connections: Los Fresnos trail extension celebrated

A trail crossing sign mark the beginning of the newly completed Historic Battlefield Trail Extension Tuesday in Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park. The trail is part of the Caracara Trails, a 428 mile regional network of trails for hiking, biking and paddling .(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

The Texas Historic Battlefield Trail is again in the national spotlight after being named Trail of the Month for November by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which featured the trail in its online blog “America’s Trails.”

Also, officials from RTC, the city of Brownsville, Come Dream Come Build (Community Development Corporation of Brownsville), Palo Alto National Historical Park, Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization, University of Texas School of Public Health, Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation and across Cameron County were scheduled to gather this morning for a private ribbon-cutting to celebrate the opening of the extension of the Battlefield Trail from Palo Alto to Los Fresnos.

The Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation awarded Caracara Trails, formerly known as the Active Plan, $2 million for the 1.8-mile extension, the groundbreaking for which took place in January. It’s part of one of six catalyst projects for Caracara Trails, a countywide, 428-mile network of hike-and-bike trails that eventually will connect Brownsville and 10 other communities.

Rose M.Z. Gowen, Brownsville city commissioner and RTC board member, said the next step is to build the trail actually linking Los Fresnos to the new extension, a project dependent on Transportation Alternatives Program funding through the MPO.

“The ribbon cutting (today) is the first phase of the two phases to connect Brownsville to Los Fresnos, and will complete the first catalyst project within the plan,” she said.

The second catalyst project, about to get underway with $500,000 in Federal Land Access Program funds, is for the Bahia Grande Trail through that unit of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Gowen said. The money will be used for a feasibility and environmental study for the project, which would connect national parkland to a U.S Fish and Wildlife area — hence the federal land access aspect, she said.

“We asked for a particular amount of money and the feds were so excited about the project that they said we think you should ask for more,” Gowen said. “They wanted to make sure we had enough to do the feasibility study. We’ve never experienced that before.”

The feasibility and environmental study will “determine the exact path” of the Bahia Grande trail, she said.

“It will also tell us if there’s any right-of-way (acquisition) we need to accomplish,” Gowen said. “It should end with some shovel-ready documents, then we go out and find more funding for the construction itself.”

She said the cities and towns included in the trail network have done a good job collaborating to locate funding available for such projects, emphasizing that such funding can only be used on trail design, not fixing potholes as some constituents would like to see done.

Hike-and-bike trails everywhere, meanwhile, are more popular than ever since people are limited to where they can go due to pandemic measures, Gowen said.

“Trails were growing in popularity around the county even before the pandemic, but the pandemic has really exploded it in terms of trail support,” she said. “Going outside on a trail is one of the safest things that you can do during the pandemic, so trail use across the county has just gone nuts, and many cities are even closing roads or streets that are not heavily trafficked and creating pop-up trails, so the concept of a trail is very, very popular.

“People are using them. We can see that here locally. Hopefully when we can travel again and such it’s going to translate into increased tourism, so it makes sense that the momentum is high and we’re definitely looking forward to capitalizing on that.”