Clark H. Coan saunters with a practiced gait down a trestle bridge that spans the Wakarusa River on an abandoned stretch of Missouri Pacific Railway line.
Stepping from timber to timber, he explains how the bridge, about 20 miles west of Lawrence, will be planked and handrails installed once the railroad bed is converted to a trail for hikers and bikers.
Coan, a resident of Lawrence, is co-chairman of the Rails-to-Trails Coalition of Kansas, which has been working for the conversion of this Topeka-to-Overbrook line for three years. Last month, he said, his group received the deed for land easements and for the bridges on 16.8 miles of the 21-mile line, a donation from the Pioneer Legacy Foundation of Shawnee Mission.
The not-for-profit foundation is a Kansas public charitable corporation that promotes the legacy of the pioneers. Railroads are part of that legacy.
BOB INGOLD, president of the foundation, said his group bought the abandoned line from Missouri Pacific and intends to establish a tourist train on the 5-mile section it retained, which runs from the Forbes Field area in Topeka to Berryton. He declined comment on when the tourist train would begin operation.
He said he is pleased the coalition now has an opportunity to go ahead with the trail, which he noted "should be good for Kansas."
Coan said the rail-trail will "go through some beautiful territory. The land gets real rolling as the trail runs into Osage County."
A waterfall can be seen from the trail in an area called Swissvail, where steam trains once stopped for water, and the meandering Camp Creek flows alongside for a time. Near Overbrook, in southwestern Douglas County, the rail-trail crosses the Santa Fe Trail, declared historic by Congress three years ago.
Coan said his group is working with the Landon Trail Coalition of Topeka to develop this corridor, which they see as a joint private-public venture. The Landon group wants the rail-trail named for former Kansas Gov. Alf Landon.
Coan said the trail may be open to hikers and mountain bikers by fall, but is now closed to all traffic.
PART OF the old rail line runs through a Clinton Lake wildlife area, and Bob Meinen, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks in Topeka, said the state may do some trail development there in cooperation with the coalition.
And it may be possible, he said, to coordinate the rail-trail with other Clinton Lake trails.
But that ``won't happen in the near future," Meinen said, because of the state's fiscal problems.
Rob Manes of the parks and public land staff of the Department of Wildlife and Parks in Pratt said picnicking and camping facilities might eventually be built in the wildlife area for rail-trail travelers.
Although the trail conversion now is gaining some momentum, Coan said the project initially faced indifference from the Missouri Pacific and the Interstate Commerce Commission, which regulates the abandonment process, and still faces opposition from a land rights group.
Coan said his brother, Marc, first read that the track was being abandoned three years ago and they soon began talking to the railroad about converting it to a trail.
Another Coan brother, Ed, learned of the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Coan and other trail supporters contacted that group and formed the coalition.
HOWEVER, it wasn't until March 1988 when the coalition filed suit against the ICC to force that agency to ``railbank'' the line that railroad and government officials began to take the coalition seriously, Coan said.
In May 1989, the line was formally "railbanked," he said, explaining that the National Trails System Act of 1983 provides for such a process. Railbanking permits other uses of abandoned rail corridors while the land itself is held in abeyance should future commerce needs arise.
Coan added that the 1983 act is being challenged in the Supreme Court, and a decision on its constitutionality is expected shortly. He said rails-to-trails supporters anticipate that the law will be upheld.
Railbanking of the Topeka-Overbrook line resulted from a compromise worked out between the rails-to-trails group, Missouri Pacific and Pioneer Legacy Foundation, Coan said. The coalition subsequently dropped its suit.
In the meantime, though, the land rights group, called Kansans for Preservation of Land Rights, filed suit, appealing the ICC's decision to railbank the Topeka-Overbrook line.
ACCORDING TO KPLR board member Harold Lutz of rural Shawnee County, landowners in the group are worried about protecting their privacy once the trail is open and about how the right of way will be managed.
He said landowners along the trail and other taxpayers are concerned about having to pay for the trail and its upkeep if the county takes over its operation and the property goes off the tax rolls.
If the county doesn't take it over, he added, the trail "will be unmanageable."
He said a number of fences along the right of way that the railroad formerly maintained are now in poor condition, and there is a growing problem with weeds like musk thistle, which the railroad also formerly controlled.
Lutz said he also has heard of incidents involving ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) on the trail, although motorized vehicles are not supposed to use it.
Coan said indications are at least some of the ATVs in question may belong to adjoining property owners, and he said another group of landowners is working with the coalition to block roadway access points in an attempt to keep trespassing ATVs off. "No trespassing" signs also are to be posted.
In other rails-to-trails projects across the country, Coan said, vandalism to private property along the trail has not proved to be a problem.
According to the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, as of mid-1989, the United States had 213 rail-to-trail conversions with a total length of 2,721 miles.
In addition, the conservancy reported in its December 1989 newsletter, Trailblazer, that it was aware of another 231 conversion efforts under way, which if successful, would add another 5,535 miles to the system.
Of the still-pending landowners' suit over the Topeka-Overbrook project, Coan said, "We don't think it will stop the trail."
COAN SAID that beyond the legal issues, a concerted volunteer effort will be needed to get the Topeka-Overbrook rail bed in shape for hikers and bikers.
Phase two of the project, just beginning, involves grading ballast away from the rail bed and planking the bridges. Old tracks were removed by the foundation during phase one.
Coan said phase three, which will probably take about two more years, will involve putting down a limestone chip surface, similar to that used on the Kansas River levee in Lawrence's Riverfront Park, so wheelchairs and touring bikes also can use the trail.
Fund-raising also must get under way. Coan said the coalition received a loan to pay for a year's worth of insurance, and he and the other co-chairman, Larry Ross of Wichita, have personally donated hundreds of dollars of their own money to the project, but additional major contributions are needed.
Coan estimates $400,000 will be required to complete the trail project.
Coan said his coalition also is working on a 32-mile, rails-to-trail conversion in the Manhattan area.
"That's beautiful too," he said. "It goes through the Flint Hills, along Wildcat Creek."
IN ADDITION, the group promoted the East Lawrence rails-to-trails project when it first began. The city of Lawrence and Santa Fe Railway reached tentative agreement last week on converting that rail spur to a public use trail. It extends from just north of the overpass west of 23rd Street and Haskell Avenue to 29th Street.
Coan said the nearest rail-trails now operating are at Fort Kearney State Historical Park in Nebraska and at Columbia, Mo.
Coan, who wrote the booklet "Walking Trails Near Lawrence," said the state of Missouri also is building a 200-mile rail-trail from St. Charles to Sedalia along the bluffs above the Missouri River.
Hundreds of miles of railroad lines have been abandoned in Kansas in the last 10 years, he said, and the coalition thinks hundreds more will be abandoned in the next 10.
"Once they're gone," Coan said of the corridors. "They're gone. They're an irreplacable resource."