BROWNSVILLE, RGV – The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, in partnership with Cameron County, this week launched their Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Plan Tour.

The nonprofit, which is dedicated to creating trail networks for communities nationwide, kicked off its six-day biking and kayaking tour through the county by spotlighting Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park in Brownsville.

Organizers, county officials and local partners rode 18.5 miles through the park and across the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge, where the trail and the day’s activities concluded.

While at Palo Alto, participants listened to a National Park Service presentation detailing plans for the inaugural trail corridor, known as the “Battlefield Segment,” that will connect the landmark to Los Fresnos and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. It is one of six catalyst projects Rails-to-Trails will undertake in Cameron County. The others – the “Arroyo-Resaca Segment,” the “Bahia Grande Segment,” the “South Padre Island Segment,” the “Arroyo-Colorado Segment” and the “Laguna Madre Segment” – are slated for later dates, but will be highlighted during the tour.

Brandi Horton, vice president of communications for Rails-to-Trails, explained the importance of physically biking or paddling down the marked routes.

“It’s more than a trail ride,” said Horton. “… What we’re doing is we’re bringing people out here to experience the trail infrastructure that’s already on the ground, so that they know that there’s really good stuff that we’re building from, but also to experience the amazing cultural and natural amenities that exist all over Cameron County … A lot of people don’t know about the wildlife refuges, … about the culture, the history that exists here, so this was a chance in the early stages of the trail network project to bring all these people out to really understand the vision and to understand why, as a national organization, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is interested.”

When asked why the group decided to collaborate on this particular project, Horton credits Brownsville City Commissioner Rose M.Z. Gowen. In light of the diabetes epidemic in the region, Gowen pushed to create more spaces where residents could be active.

“To be active, you have to have places to be active,” said Gowen. “In talking to our neighboring cities in Cameron County … that led us to the finding that many communities in the country are earning a lot of money through active or bicycle tourism … and wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had this infrastructure that could create new revenue into our areas and, also, at the same time, attract our own people to get off the couch …?”

Spearheading the planning efforts, Gowen worked to form a coalition of cities and partnered with the UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville to draft a proposal. She eventually approached Rails-to-Trails to assist with implementation.

“That’s led to the concept of creating a network that would connect 11 cities in Cameron County to each other, but also to our richest, historic and cultural sites …,” said Gowen.

The cities have signed a MOU with Rails-to-Trails for the entire project. Once completed, there will be 428 miles of on-road, off-road and water routes throughout the trail network; however, Rails-to-Trails and Cameron County officials estimate that it will take about a decade to finish all the corridor segments. Construction will be completed piece by piece as funding comes in.

For now, the “Battlefield Segment” plan is moving forward. Rails-to-Trails received a $2 million grant from the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation this year for the extension, and the surveying and environmental analyses are now done.

“For us, it’s really all about this,” said Horton. “This connected infrastructure is designed to inspire physical activity for the people who live here, but also to bring tourism and new economic development strategies together. [There is] so much innovation at work, being really led by the community in a way that’s really, really powerful.”

For more information about the Lower Rio Grande Active Plan or to view maps of proposed trails, visit the Rails-to-Trails website.