Every morning, Heidi Cohn parks her car on the south side of Lady Bird Lake, then crunches along a gravel pathway, catching views of rowers and runners as she walks the last half-mile to her job as executive director of the Trail Foundation.
Along the way, she also gets an up-close look at the biggest challenge now facing the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail — ever-increasing usage of a route that winds through the center of a city that’s exploding in population.
Mention the trail, which serves as the hub of more than 130 miles of trail in the Austin area, and people light up. Some call it our city’s living room. Others refer to it as “church,” a place they go to meditate or think. We exercise, socialize, chill out and count birds, turtles and squirrels along the trail, and tourists flock to it, too.
“This trail is so unique,” Cohn says. “It sets Austin apart and makes us a city like none other.”
The 10-mile urban pathway and 199 acres of adjacent green space see more than 2.6 million visits every year, according to data collected by the foundation. That’s a lot of pounding footsteps — and a lot of wear and tear. An average of 8,000 people use the trail each day, and up to 15,000 walk, run or skip along it on peak days. User patterns are shifting, too.
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Cohn took over her position in June, filling a vacancy created last fall when Susan Rankin parted ways with the nonprofit agency after nearly 11 years. Under Rankin’s leadership, the organization redeveloped trailheads, installed new restrooms, completed landscaping projects and worked with the city of Austin to complete the 1.3-mile trail boardwalk beneath Interstate 35.
But now, Cohn says, the privately funded organization, which works with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department to maintain and improve the trail, needs to face the reality of exponential growth and how that will impact our beloved trail. That’s why she and her staff of six are sifting through a list of 37 potential projects, everything from more restrooms to new seating areas and reroutes of some sections of trail.
“We’re really looking east to identify community need,” Cohn says. “We’re prioritizing projects and will identify 15 or so that bubble to the top, and there’s a lot of need on the east side.”
At the same time, the organization is getting ready to start construction on its biggest project since the 1.3-mile, $27 million boardwalk opened in 2014. Crews will break ground by year’s end on a $2.5 million donor-funded project to build a new trail crossing and viewing platform underneath the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge on the north side of Lady Bird Lake. Once construction begins, the build-out will take about a year, Cohn says.
Also in the planning stage? A reroute of the trail at the Holly Power Plant, and an “instant forest” on a barren stretch of Pleasant Valley Drive near Longhorn Dam, where grant money will be used to plant seedlings and larger trees and install an irrigation system to water them.
“There’s zero shade there,” Cohn says.
The foundation is teaming with the Austin Parks Foundation, another nonprofit group that works to maintain and improve the city’s parkland, and the city of Austin on a study to determine what to do with the Seaholm Intake structure and surrounding parkland, too.
The Trail Foundation formed 14 years ago, when trail users set up tables on the trail and collected donations to complete projects that the city of Austin budget wouldn’t cover. Dan Garrison, who now heads Garrison Brothers Distillery, founded the organization in 2003. Since then, the foundation has raised and allocated more than $11 million for trail improvements.
The foundation is funded through memberships, which cost $50 a year, along with private and corporate donations and grants. If you’ve ever run the Maudie’s Moonlight Margarita Run, which always unfolds on a sultry summer evening, you’ve participated in the organization’s biggest annual fundraiser. About 3,000 people are members of the organization, which recently moved into new offices in the Seaholm Building, thanks to an in-kind donation of space from Umbel, a data management company.
Cohn brings a background in fundraising to her role. She served as director of development for the Austin-based Hill Country Conservancy for three years. Before that, she was director of annual giving and community relations for the Casady School in Oklahoma City, and an event planning and public relations consultant.
A Houston native, she has a 14-year-old daughter and recently became engaged. She grew up in a family that loved to hike in Colorado, California and Arizona.
“As I’ve spent time in Austin, my desire to encourage and support access to nature has strengthened within me,” she says. “It goes back to this exponential growth and me being a mother. I want to make sure my daughter and future generations have places to go outside in nature.”
Growth and development are important, she says, but so is making sure the public has free access to nature. The Butler Trail does that, no matter where you live and who you are.
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