WESLACO, RGV – Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization, is to hold its October board meeting in Brownsville.

The group has recognized Brownsville as a “Trail Nation” due to its commitment to creating nature trails. 

Dr. Rose Gowen, M.D., a Brownsville city commissioner, spoke about the connections between tourism and good health at a recent diabetes forum hosted by Unidos Contra La Diabetes. 

Dr. Rose Gowen, MD.

In an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian at the event, Gowen spoke about the support Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is providing Brownsville.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people.

“We are recognized now as a Trail Nation project by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, which is a national not-for-profit organization and in fact the Rails to Trail Conservancy has chosen to bring their board meeting to Brownsville in October,” Gowen said, in the interview.

“So, that means 15 or so board members plus 23 staff all coming to Brownsville who have never been to the Valley ever. We have the opportunity to introduce more than 20 people, closer to 30 or so, to this part of the country for the first time, in a positive way and how many tourism dollars is that going to drop into the bucket? It is going to have a huge impact, just from one meeting.”

Gowen has been spearheading an effort to create a series of trails across Cameron County, which has piqued the interest of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Asked how the project is going, Gowen said:

“It is going very well. We now have an official name. We are called the Caracara Trails. Caracara is the name of the Mexican eagle, a reference to birding and the environment you can enjoy on the trail network. In 2018 we captured over five million dollars. By the end of the year or the first of next year we should be building the extension of the battlefield trail that will connect Brownsville to Los Fresnos. And Harlingen captured over a million dollars to extend their Arroyo Trail. And we are waiting on a grant shortly that will allow us to build the first Kayak Trail down the Arroyo Colorado. So, it is going very, very, well.”

Asked what the goal is, Gowen said: “We hope to build 428 miles of routes, both on road and off road that will connect 11 cities in Cameron County. It is a long term project and it is apropos that the plan itself was funded by the (Valley Baptist) Legacy Foundation to begin with as this will be our legacy to future generations as we complete it.”

Gowen added: “Healthy eating, active living, it is not that complicated. It is very straightforward and it can be fun if you do it right.”

Diabetes forum

A panel discussion at the diabetes forum hosted by Unidos Contra La Diabetes. From left to right, Ron Garza of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, Amanda Dave, of Community Wide Campaign, Dr. Rose Gowen, and Tania Chavez of La Union del Pueblo Entero.

At the Unidos Contra La Diabetes event, Gowen was on a panel with Ron Garza of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, Amanda Dave, of Community Wide Campaign, and Tania Chavez of La Union del Pueblo Entero.

Asked what the key points were that she wanted to get across, Gowen said:

“That health is not one dimensional because people are not one dimensional. If we want to improve rates of diabetes and lower rates of obesity, we really need to provide our leaders more than one reason to do things. A couple of the ways we can do that is to look at other sets of data that are not traditionally felt to be related to health like tourism dollars.”

Gowen then spoke about the things a tourist might want from a vacation.

“Well, I am a tourist, you are a tourist, what do you look for? Do you look for a cement city with nothing but cars in it when you go on vacation? Or do you look for a city that has wonderful parks and that you can stroll holding your boyfriend or husband or wife’s hand and look at the stars at night? Can you get on a bike for fun because it is not something you do normally at home?” Gowen said.

“All of those things attract tourists and bring money in to the community, as well as engaging your own people to be active and make better choices. So, let’s look at that data. Let’s see how we can attract more dollars into our city that will benefit us as well in terms of health.”

Economic development is also impacted by the physical health of a community, Gowen pointed out.

“Are there things that companies look for when they want to locate in a city. I would say that there are. One example would be San Antonio and Toyota that was looking for a city that was doing something to combat obesity because their workers had to be a certain size and shape in order to operate the machinery,” Gowen said.

“Similarly said, companies’ employees that don’t like the city they are located in are not going to want to work for them. Well, why do they not like the city? Maybe it is because they want parks for their kids or maybe it’s because they would like a farmer’s market. And so on and so forth.

“So, economic development can be very directly related to health if you look at it through that lens, just like tourism. Therein goes the challenge, look at the corners and edges of every issue that have to do with health, instead of just looking at health in terms of traditional unilateral views.”

Asked if leaders in the Valley and, for that matter, its constituents, understand this, Gowen said: “I think we are learning. I think that awareness is growing. But, we still have a long way to go.”

From the Rails-to-Trails website:

“The Caracara Trails aims to become one of the finest and most extensive regionwide nonmotorized transportation networks in the U.S.—and to promote the Lower Rio Grande Valley as a worldwide magnet for active tourists, facilities and infrastructure. With a thriving local tourism economy concentrated around South Padre Island, the Caracara Trails could expand the geographic reach of local tourist expenditures, extend area visits and otherwise reduce seasonal lulls in tourist travel.

“When complete, the fully implemented Caracara Trails will comprise 230 miles of multi-use trails, 120 miles of U.S. Bicycle Routes and 78 miles of paddling trails. The first phase of the Caracara Trails involves creation of six catalyst projects that will include 57.5 miles of multiuse trails and on-road biking routes, and 18 miles of paddling trails.

“Health studies have found that physical activity can increase by up to 40 or 50 percent with trail access close to one’s home. The Caracara Trails’ countywide trail network will complement the many local trail networks (existing and in development) and encourage locals to hike, bike or even ditch a car that many cannot afford. The increased options for physical activity will also help combat the prevalence of health issues related to inactivity, most notably type 2 diabetes. The projected yearly medical cost savings to residents are estimated to be between $3,108,653.2 and $6,492,040.44.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story has been provided by the Caracara Trails group.

Editor’s Note: The above news story is the second in a four-part series related to a diabetes forum hosted by Unidos Contra la Diabetes. Click here to read Part One, featuring Dr. Belinda Reininger. Part Three will feature Eddie Olivarez, chief administrative officer for Hidalgo County Health & Human Services.