“THIS TRAIL WILL COME RIGHT UP TO MY YARD,” frets 79-year-old Ollie Belle Griffin, as she stands with her recently acquired 110-pound rottweiler, Ringo, in her newly chain-link-fenced front yard in the East Texas village of Flint. And, chimes in her 79-year-old niece, Isabelle Lewis, “there will be whooping and hollering and drinking and cursing and throwing out paper day and night.” They both agree: “It’s just wrong.”

What has the two widows grumbling is a proposed hike and bike trail that will stretch south nineteen miles from the outskirts of Tyler, through the communities of Gresham, Flint, Bullard, Mount Selman, and Love’s Lookout, to the northern city limits of Jacksonville. As part of a national program known as the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the trail would be built on the old Southern Pacific right-of-way. The mission of the seven-year-old program is to turn abandoned railroad tracks into a nationwide interconnected linear park system. In Texas two Rails-to-Trails now exist, one in Longview and another in Lufkin.

Even though the national Rails-to-Trails program received the blessing of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, the Tyler project surprised its sponsors by igniting a blazing controversy. Converting the East Texas rail corridor is the brainchild of a 36-year-old mother of two, Delia Meese. Meese and her husband, Rod, a cardiologist, moved to Tyler three years ago. In September 1990 the Meeses bought a tandem bike and asked the shop owner about places to ride off the busy streets and county roads. He mentioned that someone ought to buy the railroad tracks and make a trail. It was an oddball idea, but it sounded great to Delia, who immediately called Southern Pacific to see if it would sell. The answer was yes—$880,000 for a 24-mile strip that would connect Tyler to Jacksonville. Then Delia heard about the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, phoned the national office, and learned that her dream was a reality in 39 other states. In the fall of 1990 she organized a brainstorming session in Tyler for people who were interested in the project, and East Texas Rails to Trails came into being.

“I hoped the tracks would be for everybody to go up and down, bike and exercise—it’s so beautiful,” says Meese. “These trails have benefited small towns: Restaurants have been established, bed and breakfasts opened, and the history of the railroads goes on, since towns where the trails run were started by the railroads.” Meese bubbles on as she maneuvers her BMW convertible along Farm-to-Market Road 2493, which parallels the northern end of the trail. As we swing around a bend in the road, she swerves to miss a sweat-suited jogger. A palisade of magnificent loblolly pines lines the tracks, which are entangled with briars and honeysuckle vines that furl through the ties. “There’s a lot of trash we’ll be cleaning up,” Meese points out as we pass piles of debris, a gully engorged with tires, and cast-off sofas and refrigerators broadcast alongside a picturesque low rock wall.

Meese’s enthusiasm has not been shared by all. To Joann McKeethan, the owner of the Country Cuts and Curls beauty shop, and her brother, Jimmy Bain, the trail is nothing but an affront. Third-generation residents of Bullard, they have always planned to pass on the family property—lush, rolling ranch land—to their children. Although the tracks slash directly across the front yard of Bain’s neat bungalow, he is dead set against replacing the rails with a trail. “My grandparents were happy to have the railroad there,” he says. “It helped the community, but this won’t.” McKeethan says there are plenty of other venues where joggers and bicyclists can work up a sweat. “Most people around here who need to jog or walk can go to the mall. We won’t be able to sleep at night; our cattle will be in danger; we won’t have any privacy,” she worries.

McKeethan isn’t alone in this worry. Roy Thoene, the pastor of Gresham’s First Baptist Church, is a gregarious hulk of a man. Protective of his ock and hotly opposed to the trail, Thoene booms, “This has devastated a lot of my widow ladies—they are scared to death.”

“One positive thing that opposing the trail has done is that we have all banded together and gotten to know each other,” says Jacksonville manufacturer Robert Nichols, the spokesman for the opposition. Originally the trail was to have marched across the front of Nichols’ two factories—Monarch Products and Progressive Polymers. Since the driveways to both plants would have dissected the proposed path, Nichols foresaw a constant clash of service trucks and nature lovers. With fax machines running through the night in March of last year and couriers distributing yers to the surrounding communities, Nichols enlisted an energetic resistance to East Texas Rails to Trails’ plans. And the list is long: the local Texas Farm Bureau, city councils, school districts, sheriffs, chambers of commerce, libraries, and churches.

So diligent was Nichols, who is also a two-term former mayor of Jacksonville and on the boards of directors of several local companies, that last June, Meese capitulated and agreed to end the trail at his property line. But Nichols didn’t give up the fight just because he had won his own battle. To the businessman, the facts are plain: “The idea originated with people in Tyler, but it goes through our suburbs. It’s like the city dump—nobody wants it on their side of town.”

Quarrels like this aren’t that unusual, says Chuck Montange, a lawyer on the Rails-to-Trails board of directors in Washington, D.C. “Resistance may be high because there has been very little involvement with Rails-to-Trails in Texas,” he speculates. But if you ask Paul Boorman, the superintendent of parks and recreation in Longview who helped establish the Cargill Long Park Trail, the experience has been positive. “Some residents along the trail have even added gates to their backyard fences for easier access,” he says. As for the potential for crime, Boorman concedes that the path may now allow easier access for burglars—“but it also lets the police see them better too.”

With a shortened trail and at a much-reduced price, Southern Pacific accepted East Texas Rails to Trails’ offer of $380,000 on the tracks in July 1991. But a petition by the organization to the Interstate Commerce Commission to certify the tracks for trail use (as required by the 1983 Trails Act) was challenged by Robert Nichols. Nichols has a 1989 letter from the Jacksonville trainmaster, stating that the tracks had been abandoned—proof, he hopes, that the ICC no longer has jurisdiction over the tracks. Southern Pacific disagrees. Nichols’ challenge was a desperation move that he didn’t expect to work. “We know we won’t get a fair hearing at the ICC,” he says.

On January 14, the ICC authorized East Texas Rails to Trails’ use of the tracks. ICC rulings aren’t considered official, though, until they are published, which may be as long as six weeks from the time the vote is taken. Then Nichols’ only recourse will be to file an appeal: “We are mad enough to do it; we feel we have grounds for appeal.”  

Delia Meese is philosophical about the brouhaha: “I truly believe change is frightening no matter what the benefits.” She admits she was naive not to consult early on with community leaders about the trail. Meese says now, “I should have gone to Mr. Nichols first. I’m not politically astute.”