Last Saturday, when Beth Stevens was biking atop the levee from Humphrey Highway to the Greenwood-Leflore Airport, she was bowled over by the undisturbed natural beauty around her.

“Wow!” the executive director of the Greenwood-Leflore County Chamber of Commerce said to herself, taking in a vista that few ever see. “This is great. I wish we had access to this all the time.”

We could, given some vision, some government and philanthropic money, and a lot of cooperation from levee boards, a railroad company and landowners.

Stevens and her husband, Glen, pedaled for 16 miles, a third of it on levee tops, during the inaugural Greenwood Gravel Grind, which was co-sponsored by the chamber.

That cycling tour has the potential to eventually rival the other ride the chamber puts on each year — Bikes, Blues & Bayous, which attracts a thousand riders the first weekend in August, most of them from out of town.

Getting a cycling-related tourism boost two weekends a year is great. The economic impact, though, could be year-round, while also helping to attract and keep young families, if an infrastructure of cycling trails was developed, as has been done in some parts of Mississippi but even more so in neighboring Arkansas.

The extensive network of levees here and another underutilized asset — the long-unused former Columbus & Greenville railroad line to the east — could provide the base for just such an infrastructure.

You don’t have to drive far to find a parallel.

A few years ago, Charlie McVean, a Memphis commodities trader with a major philanthropic nature, converted an abandoned railroad bridge across the Mississippi River into a beautiful bike-pedestrian boardwalk.

It was, though, a “$20 million bridge to nowhere,” said Steve Higginbothom, president of the St. Francis Levee District Board, until the levee district agreed to tie its 70 miles of flood-control infrastructure in  the Arkansas Delta into what is now known as the Big River Trail.

An additional 42 miles of trail is being developed between Marianna and Helena-West Helena, where it will join the Arkansas Delta Heritage Trail, a 30-mile stretch of former rail line. The plan eventually is to have 215 miles of continuous trail through farmland and forest from West Memphis to Arkansas City, with towns to lay over along the way.

Higginbothom, a farmer and former state senator, was instrumental in getting the levee district to see that opening up the levees to walkers and cyclists was no different than using flood-control reservoirs as recreational lakes.

“It’s a huge win for the public,” he said, elaborating on the view that the levee provides trail users. “On one side, you’re looking at pristine timber and river-bottom land, and on the other side is some of the most beautiful farmland in the world.”

A decade ago, there was a push to convert the 90-mile stretch of decrepit rail line from Greenwood to West Point into a walking and biking trail. It stalled, though, after running into opposition from some landowners along the route and after the C&G rail line was sold to Genesee & Wyoming.

Genesee & Wyoming has made no discernible effort to restore the line, which now has sat unused for 18 years. Wilson Carroll, a Greenwood native and Jackson attorney who was leading the charge in 2008 for the rails-to-trails conversion, said he’s been encouraged recently to restart the process. He plans to reach out to the railroad and see if it is ready to abandon the line so that funding could be pursued to develop it into a bike trail. There’s both federal and philanthropic money to help make that happen. The Walton Family Foundation, for example, which put up $74 million developing trails in its home base of Northwest Arkansas, has kicked in $1.2 million to expand the Big River Trail in the Arkansas Delta.

Should the Genesee & Wyoming rail line be converted, downtown Greenwood could become the connecting point between that bike trail and another over the levee tops going as far north or south as the levee districts would allow.

Chances are the development would still have to overcome opposition from landowners who consider traffic of any kind on the levees or rail beds to be trespassing.

The St. Francis Levee District ran into such opposition when two landowners sued to block the Big River Trail from crossing their properties. They claimed the levee district’s easements did not provide access for recreational purposes.

Before the case went to court, however, the parties worked out an agreement that allows the bike trail to be open from March 1 until Nov. 1. “They didn’t want anyone coming through their property during deer season,” Higginbothom said of the objecting landowners.

Maybe similar accommodations could be worked out here to get everyone on board.

The Walton Family Foundation provides a number that might cause potential opponents to reconsider.

Last year, the foundation released the results of studies it commissioned to measure the economic impact of the bike paths and trails it helped develop in Northwest Arkansas. They found that cycling was producing $137 million a year in benefits from tourism, new business development and local residents’ better health.

Greenwood and the surrounding area have been struggling to revive their economies and stop their population losses. Cycling tourism could help address both concerns. It should not be overlooked.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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