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Cyclists, hikers not only beneficiaries of trail plan

In a state that depends on tourists for its economic good health, an ambitious idea of transforming abandoned railroad beds into linear parks for hiking and biking makes especially good sense. Throughout the nation, Rails to Trails supporters are gathering steam to ensure that a large portion of the 120,000 miles of railroad beds that have been abandoned since 1920 will be preserved for the public's recreational enjoyment, a noble goal not unlike that of President Theodore Roosevelt's when he began the national parks system.

Only about 2,700 miles of those beds have been converted, but people worried that motor vehicles have the potential of choking off any future possibilities of safe long-distance bicycle transit are forming for a grass-roots effort to substantially increase that number each year. They belong to the National Rails to Trails Conservancy, and they can point to some beautiful trails throughout the nation as an example of what is possible with the right amount of organization and energy.

Among the most notable is the trail in Seattle, where 12,000 residents bicycle daily from the suburbs to downtown. In Tallahassee, bikers, joggers and skaters safely glide along the smooth 16-mile trail to St. Marks. And just last month, a large group of Pinellas County men, women and children gathered for a groundbreaking ceremony for construction of a 14-mile segment of the Pinellas Trail, which will run between Seminole and Palm Harbor. In Florida's most densely populated county, where riding a bike or jogging along a highway is life-threatening, the grass-roots citizens organization that made this first stretch a reality may someday be able to enjoy a 47-mile stretch south to St. Petersburg.

The Pinellas group was particularly motivated because of the nature of the overcrowded county. Membership grew by 1,800 in a year, and group members raised more than $100,000 to augment the county's financial commitment to construction. In the North Suncoast, there are still plenty of wide open spaces, but it is not too early to begin carefully planning the 47-mile recreational trail that has been proposed between Trilby in northeastern Pasco County to Gulf Junction near Dunnellon.

This dream "greenway" would take people along the banks of the Withlacoochee River and through the Withlacoochee State Forest, someday possibly connecting to another 17-mile section being planned near Gainesville. The possibilities have been exciting to about 200 Rails to Trails advocates who have been meeting regularly in Inverness. Though the Withlacoochee trail would affect Hernando and Pasco, residents of those two counties have not made the drive to Inverness for meetings.

Don Barradas of Ridge Manor, the new president of Rails to Trails of the Withlacoochee, wants to improve the opportunity for Hernando and Pasco advocates to get involved. He has scheduled the group's next regular meeting for 1 p.m. Saturday at Teen Hall in Brooksville, next to the band shell on Fort Dade Avenue.

The proposed recreational trail that has excited so many Citrus County residents the past year deserves widespread support _ not just from citizens who enjoy hiking and biking, but from business and government officials charged with developing tourism. Clearly a well-connected system of these linear parks would be a huge drawing card for thousands of vacationers.