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OGALLALA - Repairing a 72-mile stretch of the Cowboy Trail between Norfolk and O'Neill damaged by this summer's flooding will cost between $4.3 million and $6.2 million.

The state could qualify for up to 75 percent of repair costs in federal disaster payments, but the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has yet to decide what it will do.

Options range from approving repairs to abandoning one of the nation's longest hiking and bicycling trails.

"It's a tough issue," said Roger Kuhn, assistant director of Game and Parks, as he presented the findings of a recent engineering report to commissioners meeting Monday at the Lake McConaughy Visitor and Water Interpretive Center.

Because the presentation was made in an information meeting, commissioners could not take action on it.

A staff recommendation likely will be presented to the board for a decision at the Oct. 28 meeting in Norfolk, Kuhn said.

An engineering firm identified three main areas of damage to the trail caused by June's flooding of the Elkhorn River: a major bridge near Norfolk, a short section near Clearwater and the remaining 67 miles between Norfolk and O'Neill.

Repairing the iron railroad trestle and approaching trail sections just west of Norfolk will cost between $2 million and $3 million.

Near Clearwater, flooding caused the Elkhorn to establish a new main channel which now crosses the Cowboy Trail. The Clearwater repair could require buying property from nearby landowners to reroute a two-mile section, contributing to a cost of $1 million for that section.

Repairs on most of the remaining 67 miles involve resurfacing the crushed limestone trail and cleaning debris from bridges.

The former Chicago Northwestern Railroad right-of-way was given to the state in 1993 by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The total corridor spans 321 miles, making it the nation's longest rail-to-trail conversion.

Since 1993, the commission has used about $5.3 million in federal funds to convert railroad bridges and surface the rocky railroad ballast with crushed limestone. In 2008, the agency completed work on 195 miles from Norfolk to Valentine.

Several commissioners wanted to know how many hikers, bikers and equestrians use the trail. An exact user count doesn't exist because Game and Parks does not charge fees to enter the trail nor does it monitor access points.

But Kuhn said the Norfolk-to-Clearwater stretch is the most heavily used section followed by the Valentine area. Otherwise, the trail is lightly used.

Commissioners wanted to know if abandoning the trail and closing it to recreation would be an option. It's possible, Kuhn said, but he was unclear if the state could be required to repay part or all of the federal grants used to improve the trail.

Another unknown is how much the Federal Emergency Management Agency will authorize for trail repairs. Game and Parks staff was meeting with a FEMA representative Monday.

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The commission currently has about $460,000 available that could be used as the state's match for federal grants, Kuhn said.

"You could attack this thing in phases," he said in recommending the board consider doing the 67 miles of repairs first, since they are the easiest to complete.

In other business, Kuhn gave commissioners an update on privatizing the restaurant at Eugene T. Mahoney State Park near Ashland.

The agency has negotiated a deal with Treat America, a national food management company, which would pay the commission 5 percent of the restaurant's annual gross sales, not including sales tax. That would equal about $65,000 based on the restaurant's annual sales of $1.3 million.

The plan would eliminate 17 full-time state jobs, although those employees may be offered positions with the new vendor. Game and Parks wants to get out of the food business at its most popular park as a cost-cutting measure.

The commission may act on the proposal at Tuesday's business meeting.

Reach Joe Duggan at 402-473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.

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