Local activist looks to reboot Greenway group

The proposed map of the Greenway of the Cherokee Ozarks shows the study area, nodes, and various parks and recreation areas.

Looking back through the Greenway of the Cherokee Ozarks Facebook page, some ideas presented in 2013 have come to fruition in Tahlequah, including the creekside trail. Then, as time passed and leadership in the group changed, steam for the regional path of recreational opportunities and natural habitats ran out about two years ago.

But one of the leaders of the foundation, Kathy Tibbits, thinks it is time to revitalize the group and the greenway idea.

"We were a large group. There were probably 30 organizations under our umbrella. It was the superheroes of environmentalism and sustainability," said Tibbits. "We were a coalition of organizations, and then we created a foundation. In 2012, 2013 - we were pretty rocking back then. We had a little budget. I look back at pictures of our meetings and a lot of people have even passed away."

Some of the organizations included Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Cherokee Nation, Department of Tourism, Department of Wildlife Conservation, Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, Healthy Living Program, and scouting groups.

The Greenway of the Cherokee Ozarks is in the area of U.S. Highway 412 near Salina to Vian Lake on Interstate 40. The idea is that travelers will pull off of U.S. 412 or I-40 and take other highways, byways, and roads through Delaware, Cherokee, Sequoyah, and Adair counties to see attractions, go geocaching, hike a trail, visit a nature area, or patronize a local bed-and-breakfast or restaurant.

Tibbits said project ideas from the past included a mountain bike trail on Sparrowhawk Mountain; purchasing Hanging Rock Camp to turn it into a nature center; supporting the Tahlequah creek trail; and developing a trail from the city hospital to the Illinois River.

Because of the pandemic, Tibbits thinks outdoor recreation is going to experience a revival.

"What's happened with COVID recently, and will continue to happen, is that the stretch of the Illinois River between Delaware to Lake Tenkiller will be more at risk than ever, but more needed than ever," she said.

Tibbits sees where the Greenway would bring more tourism to the Tahlequah area, but those on board may have to follow guidelines.

"At one point in time, we were going to set standards - like if a private marina or float operator wanted to advertise as part of the Greenway, they would have to match our conservation goals by recycling or using green methods and sustainability," said Tibbits. "We want to bring tourism together along the [State] Highway 10 corridor, but we need to make sure there is enough habitat to support tourism, and enough tourism to justify the use of land."

Tibbits recently participated in the pre-application process for a National Park Service Rivers and Trails Conservation technical assistance grant, and she is looking for community members, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and tribal and governmental entities to work on multi-county projects that would be part of the Greenway. While she is passionate about the foundation, Tibbits said she doesn't have the time to lead it.

"Who wants to run with it? I would love to see it passed down to someone who cares about sustainability and sustainable tourism - someone with environmental integrity," she said.

"It could be a graduate student or a university class, or someone with a passion for the environment and area."

Part of the work to get the Greenway of the Cherokee Ozarks going again would be updating the old contact list and reaching out to entities previously involved. Organizers would also have to find out which projects have been completed; find out what projects groups want to work on; and learn which groups can offer assistance with money, grants, support, and hands-on work.

"It's about enhancing, growing, and everyone putting their projects into the collaboration. I just need to find a lead agent to go forward and get coordinated," said Tibbits.

The grant Tibbits recently learned about has a March deadline, so interested parties are encouraged to contact her as soon as possible. She hopes to have meetings via videoconferencing.

Get involved

Individuals and groups interested in the Greenway of the Cherokee Ozarks can contact Kathy Tibbits at 918-797-5016, and visit www.facebook.com/GreenwayoftheCherokeeOzarks.

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