Derrick Z. Jackson

What we're missing

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / May 23, 2009
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AS I JOGGED across the downtown bridge over a section of the Fox River, I was blinded by scores of massive, shimmering American white pelicans perched on rocks and zooming above with wingspans of up to 9 feet. Some packs paddled around the froth of cascading dam water, creating perfect circles around schools of fish to gobble them up.

At the end of the bridge, I continued down to the bank, onto the Fox River Trail, a paved bike and pedestrian trail that stretches north to Green Bay. The swirling congregations of pelicans gave way to the solo soaring of bald eagles. As beautiful as that was, I noted the substantial homes abutting the trail and a couple of people waving graciously from them. It made me think of the anti-trail, not-in-my-backyard arguments in some suburbs in Massachusetts, as if the dregs of Guantanamo Bay were to be unleashed upon them.

"I have mixed emotions," Tom Erdman, 60, curator of the Richter Museum of Natural History at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, later said over the telephone. "There used to be nice cattail marshes, before any developments, condos, or yacht clubs at all. But I'm big on the bike trail because people see things they might not otherwise see. They can see peregrine falcons and other things that make them say, 'That's cool,' and it gets around what we have here."

It would also be cool if the Patrick administration and Massachusetts towns found more efficient ways to build bike trails. The Globe reported last month that the Commonwealth is last in the nation for accessing available federal funds for transportation enhancements such as rail trails and bike lanes. Massachusetts uses only about a third of funds, while my home state Wisconsin and the rest of New England use nearly all of theirs. Though Massachusetts has several great trails, such as the Minuteman Bikeway from Cambridge to Bedford and the Cape Cod Rail Trail, the state has left about $84 million on the table because of NIMBY squabbling and a process that makes it so expensive and time-consuming for towns to plan and get approval for trails that they give up altogether.

To be clear, it was not all smooth paving in Green Bay. A neighborhood association opposed the Fox River Trail all the way to a federal appeals court, which refused in 2001 to hear the case. Once the rail trail officially opened that same year, most civic leaders adopted it as a major attraction of the area, with 150,000 users a year. Within a year, Cole Runge, the principal planner for Brown County, echoed studies and observations of the impacts of bike trails around the nation, including the Minuteman Bikeway, by saying the trail increases the values of nearby homes.

"The businesses that realized the most significant impact are the ones you might expect, the convenience store, the Dairy Queen, but we also found an antiques store and sporting goods store along the trail that also realized some benefits," Runge told the Green Bay Press-Gazette in 2002.

The pelicans arrived out of nowhere in the mid-1990s after being bludgeoned by humans into local extinction in the 1880s. The first birds may have spread out from dry spells in Minnesota and the Dakotas to settle on an island in the bay of Green Bay. They are now 800 to 900 strong. But the Fox is currently being dredged for PCBs from the area's paper operations, and Erdman has seen some pelicans with deformed, crossed beaks. It is great that bike and pedestrian trails can give you a birds-eye view. With more of them, more viewers will demand that we clean up things so that the birds keep coming back.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at

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