The Heartland Pathways project was founded in 1987, a product of vision, chance, and energy. The Illinois Central Railroad was divesting itself of unneeded corridors throughout the region. The window of opportunity was brief, but prairie supporters responded. Heartland Pathways purchased three separate segments near each other totalling 33 miles and more than 330 acres. Much of this land included valuable prairie remnants.
Heartland Pathways was formed with help from Educational Resources in Environmental Science (ERES), an established area conservation organization. Included in the 33-mile purchase were three magnificent truss bridges -- two across heavily wooded sections of the Sangamon River and one at the western end of Heartland Pathways, across Salt Creek near Clinton.
To the untrained eye, Heartland Pathways looks little different today than it did in late 1988 when last-minute financing for the purchase was arranged. The train tracks are long gone, and vigorous plants sprout up around the gravel remaining on the bed. Yet through controlled burning and the seeding of depauperate areas, the prairie plant community along the corridor has today become more diverse and vibrant. With the help of volunteers, trestle bridges have been rebuilt and signs posted. As the possibilities of Heartland Pathways have become more clear, the list of unfinished tasks grows longer. Yet a solid beginning has been made.
More recently, HP has spent many years initiating the potential purpose of twenty-four miles of railroad betwen Urbana and Danville. HP has been especially interested in the preservation of habitat on the Right of Way (ROW), possibility of interim trail use, the banking of the bed for possible return of rail, and the preservation of the corridor for linear utilities, such as power, fiber optics, water, and sewage. Subsequently, the Champaign County Design and Conservation Foundation (CCDC) agreed to assume the Urbana to Daville corridor project. CCDC is continuing to work towards the establishment of a trail to preserve a habitat and the railbed. CCDC recently received a grant of $400,000 toward the preservation and development of the corridor. It is anticipated that this money will lever other local, state, federal, and private support, that will bring the region its first rail trail.
Heartland Pathways, a 33-mile ribbon of trails and wildlife habitat, is a natural and cultural treasure in the making in East Central Illinois.
Years ago, passenger trains and inter-urban lines carried travelers from town to town in the thriving counties of the old tallgrass prairie. Today the trains are largely gone, but the railway corridors live on, adapting to meet the changing needs of the people and the land around them. Rich in wildlife and containing many of the finest prairie remnants in the region, the old travel routes offer splendid opportunities for hiking, biking, nature watching, and simply enjoying the sights and sounds of the landscape.
Many people think of rail trails only as bikeways that offer users a safe alternative to roads and highways. Heartland Pathways offers much more. Remnants of the tallgrass prairie that once covered 60 percent of Illinois can be found along the rail corridor. The prairie is one of the most depleted ecosystems in the world. Heartland Pathways offers hope that the remnant prairie plants along the trail will maintain the genetic diversity of the once sprawling grasslands.
A recent upsurge of railroad traffic across the country may mean that some interim trails will return to rails. It is anticipated that local trails will be available for many years if or when that happens. In the long run whether the bed is a trail or a railroad, the right of way prairie will be preserved.