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Everglades bike and walking trail would link Naples, Miami

One day, if all goes according to an ambitious plan now in the works, people will be able to cycle or walk all the way from Miami to Everglades City and Naples on wide, paved trails that link together national parks, nature preserves, campgrounds and tourist attractions.

It may take a generation to finish, but the National Park Service and planners in Miami-Dade County’s parks department are already sketching out a blueprint for the longest piece of the chain — the River of Grass Greenway, which would run alongside the Tamiami Trail for 75 miles.

The NPS selected the county park planners, who have designed a wide-ranging network of planned multi-use trails across Miami-Dade, to develop a master plan for the contemplated Everglades greenway. Starting Wednesday, the county planners will host several days of public workshops at Florida International University’s Tamiami campus to outline their concepts and gather input.

The idea, the planners say, is to open up a huge swath of the Everglades system to people without the need for a car. The eco-friendly greenway would encourage locals and visitors to explore areas along the Trail many now just speed by on their way to Naples or Miami, enhancing public understanding and appreciation of the region’s natural underpinnings, planners say.

“The theme is getting people outdoors and exploring the natural and cultural heritage of the place,’’ said Maria Nardi, chief of planning for Miami-Dade parks.

By the end of 2014, the planners will have a master plan for 12- to 14-foot wide, separated greenway running along the Trail. The plan will outline materials, desired amenities along the way, and connection points to attractions, among other key elements. That would be followed by a more-precise design blueprint delineating the placement of the greenway.

The River of Grass trail would in time also connect to a 500-mile county network of planned greenways, small portions of which are completed, under construction or in design, that would allow cyclists and hikers to reach the Everglades from virtually any corner of Miami-Dade. Among those: The 40-mile Biscayne Trail, now in design, which will connect Biscayne and Everglades national parks.

Because the width of the Tamiani Trail varies considerably, the proposed Everglades greenway might in places require a slight widening of the road bed or even floating bridges to maintain a safe separation from car traffic for cyclists and hikers. Planners say any design would be “acutely’’ attuned to ecological sensitivities. The planning cost of $1.5 million is funded by federal grants.

A good estimate of the cost of building the trail won’t be known until the design plan is complete, but Miami-Dade parks planner Mark Heinicke roughed out the cost at around $75 million, or about $1 million per mile. Very little of that is yet funded, he said, and the greenway would likely be built in sections over many years. Supporters, including NPS, Collier and Miami-Dade counties, and advocacy groups, hope to launch a lobbying effort for funding once the plan is complete, Nardi and Heinicke said.

The only segment already in line for money is a Florida Department of Transportation-sponsored plan to redo the Trail and add a greenway on the Collier County end, but that is not scheduled to start until 2030.

In all, the Everglades greenway — the brainchild of Collier residents Patty Huff and Maureen Bonness of the Naples Pathways Coalition — would run from Krome Avenue at the Trail in West Miami-Dade to Collier Seminole State Park, just short of the Naples city line in Collier County. That means it would traverse across Everglades National Park and the popular Shark Valley loop, Big Cypress National Preserve, the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, the Picayune Strand State Forest, the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, and Miccosukee and Seminole tribal lands.

It would also link up with numerous trail entrances, including the Florida National Scenic Trail, and waterways such as the Turner River Canoe Trail, which leads to the town of Chokoloskee within the Ten Thousand Islands area of Everglades National Park. Along the way are also numerous scenic sites, airboat attractions, restaurants, fishing spots and cultural landmarks like Everglades photographer Clyde Butcher’s studio and inn.

The greenway could also include a spur to Everglades City just south of the Trail.

The plan is being guided by a steering committee made up of members of 14 government agencies, advocacy groups and tribal and independent Seminole and Miccosukee groups.