By DOTTY NIST
A Walton County commissioner is working to make a unique experience on the Choctawhatchee River available for county residents and visitors.
With the approval of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC), District 1 Commissioner Brannon recently submitted a grant application for the 57-mile-long Choctawhatchee River Paddle Trail. The canoe/kayak trail would link three river landings with stops at other trail head locations, including Morrison Springs and Black Creek.
The grant is through the Recreational Trails Program administered by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), in coordination with the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration.
Brannon calls the paddle trail proposal the “brainchild” of William Cleckley. Cleckley is director for the Northwest Florida Water Management District’s Division of Land Management and Acquisition. The water management district owns and manages close to 61,000 acres along the Choctawhatchee River in Walton, Holmes and Washington counties. Walton County owns most of the public access points along the river, while the water management district owns the Dead River Landing access park, which is maintained by the county through an agreement with the district.
Brannon said he was shown a list of Florida’s designated paddling trails and realized that most counties already have canoe and kayak trails. Walton County currently does not, but the county does have a number of landings along the Choctawhatchee and also several natural springs capable of being accessed from the river.
Brannon saw designating a paddle trail along the Choctawhatchee as a way to promote enjoyment of the county’s “precious natural resources” and “educate the public about our environment around us.” Brannon commented, “Protection of the environment starts with understanding it. This is an opportunity to provide recreation for our citizens and to help ecotourism.”
The project is envisioned as a cooperative effort of Walton County and the Northwest Florida Water Management District. It would consist of the rehabilitation and construction of a number of canoe trail heads along the river. with probable locations to include Morrison Springs Park, River Road Landing, Dead River Landing, Cowford Landing, and Black Creek.
Holmes County has also expressed interest in a link between Walton County’s Choctawhatchee Paddle Trail and the state-designated Holmes Creek Paddling Trail, at the confluence of the river and the creek several miles north of Cowford Landing.
The plans include intersecting the Choctawhatchee Paddle Trail with the Florida National Scenic Trail near the Cowford Landing at SR-20.
The 57-mile trip would afford opportunities for exploration of native vegetation and animals, and for fishing and camping. Visitation of several archaeological sites along the river would also be possible.
At each trail head, multi-use ramps would be provided not only for canoes and kayaks but also for motorboats. Canoe racks and picnic pavilions would be available at trail heads and, at some locations, small screened stuctures for overnight camping to facilitate multi-day trips.
A maximum grant of $200,000 is possible in 2011 for the project through the Recreational Trails Program. Matching funds are required from the grant recipient. The Northwest Florida Water Management District has agreed to provide $50,000 in funding for this purpose, and $50,000 from the Walton County District 1 Recreational Fee account has been identified.
Brannon is enthusiastic about the ecotourism potential of the paddle trail and the ability for trailgoers to utilize a phone app being developed by the South Walton Tourist Development Council to navigate the trail.
He is optimistic about the county’s chance of being approved for the grant and is hopeful of the paddle trail and associated facilities being in place by summer 2012.