Nov 12, 2021 - News
Des Moines trails lose trees as development booms
A sign along county line road
A City of West Des Moines sign along the Great Western Trail. Photo: Linh Ta/Axios

The Des Moines metro's trail system is our area's crown jewels. But as our suburbs rapidly develop, we risk losing the trees that make our paths an outdoor escape.

Why it matters: Urban sprawl is happening quickly. As cities and developers build on new land, trails are often in the middle, leading out into these less developed areas.

  • But it comes at a cost, resulting in the loss of natural vegetation that offers a reprieve from noise pollution, traffic and wind.

State of play: No one tracks tree loss in the metro, but there's no doubt it's happening more frequently, said Adam Fendrick, park planner for Polk County Conservation, which handles the county's trail system.

  • Fendrick, who's been in his role for five years, said he approves four easements a year. But his predecessor, who was in the role for 30 years, only approved two total.
  • "We are seeing just a lot more urban development that is affecting our trails," Fendrick said.
County Line road realignment
West Des Moines' planned realignment of SE County Line Road. Screenshot via public documents

Zoom in: A project by the City of West Des Moines will result in hundreds of trees being cut along the Great Western Trail to realign County Line Road and make way for Microsoft's latest expansion.

  • Project Ginger East is a new data center totaling 1.8 million square feet — the size of more than 10 Walmart stores. It's being built on 130 acres south of Highway 5 and north of South County Line Road.

Details: The city will remove Maffit Lake Road east of Veterans Parkway. It will then realign County Line Road, curving it up north so it intersects with Veterans Parkway.

  • Because new County Line Road will cross over the trail, an underground tunnel will be built underneath it. (See our Google Map.)

Yes, but: West Des Moines is giving Polk County Conservation money to replant higher quality trees for the trail — the first project of its kind, Fendrick said.

  • They plan on planting 34 trees and 56 shrubs, which isn't as dense as the number of trees lost. But they are of higher value, like silver maples, cottonwoods, American sycamores and hackberry trees.
  • But don't expect shade for a while — it'll take about 10-15 years for the overhead canopy trees to fill in, Fendrick said.

What they're saying: Urban development's influence on our trails is an under-discussed issue, that could have future consequences, Fendrick said.

  • He said an organized group, like a "Friends of Great Western Trail" group would go a long way for preservation.

Scott Sumpter, of Bike Iowa, said cyclists have accepted development will happen, but he encourages cities to take West Des Moines' lead and commit to less intersection traffic.

  • "We definitely don't want another Hickman," Sumpter said, referencing the stoplights and driveways in Waukee that cross the trail.
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