Dennis James learned a few summers ago that the best way to get to know Rock County is to walk across it.
Today, you can find him hosting regular hikes on the county’s portion of the Ice Age Trail and enjoying every step.
James is coordinator of the Rock County Chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance, which consists of highly engaged volunteers who build and maintain the trail in the county.
In Janesville, the alliance partners with Janesville Parks, Janesville Trail Adaptors and the Rock Trail Coalition to keep trails looking good.
James also promotes hiking and volunteerism at events throughout the year.
He is a good example of someone who understands how walking stretches time and prolongs life, to paraphrase author Edward Abbey.
Now, James is honing skills that will help him further promote walking.
He has been awarded a competitive five-month training program known as a Walking College Fellowship.
The program is offered by America Walks, a 20-year-old national advocacy group working to empower communities to create safe, accessible and enjoyable places to walk and to move.
“The Walking College ... is aimed at helping to build grassroots advocacy networks across the country,” said Emilie Bahr, Walking College manager. “It targets the growing number of people who want to make a difference in their communities by making walking safer, more accessible and more appealing ...”
She called this year’s competition for the fellowships “extremely competitive and rich with unique professionals.”
“We chose Dennis based on the thought he put into his application, his obvious passion for creating more walkable environments, his experience to date and because we thought the Walking College would be valuable to him ...” Bahr said.
James is the first Walking College fellow from Wisconsin.
He will complete online training on:
- The science behind the benefits of walking
- Communications skills
- Building relationships with stakeholders and decision makers
“Janesville has excellent multi-use trails,” James said. “But it doesn’t address walkability in all parts of the city. The Ice Age Trail connects Janesville and Milton, but we are working to connect communities east and west of the city.”
He praises the Rock Trail Coalition, which has made “great strides” in connecting Janesville with Beloit with the creation of the Peace Trail.
He also said the city has received several grants in the past few years to create a downtown festival area along the riverfront.
“Once completed, the Ice Age Trail/multi-use trail will be along the Rock River for about 5 miles,” James said.
He wants to see additional urban walking and multi-use trails in all Rock County communities. He also wants to see more families hiking and walking in parks.
“How do we improve and expand existing trails and how do we make them more accessible to people with disabilities?” James asks.
During his fellowship, James will develop skills to help him coordinate nonmotorized groups in Rock County.
“What are other groups doing that fit with what we (members of the Ice Age Trail Alliance) are doing,” James asked. “We want to be fully engaged with each other. Our primary responsibility is to the walking community, which includes bikes.”
He also wants to develop a shared understanding of the problems and a joint approach to solving them.
Part of his fellowship includes putting together a walking-action plan for Rock County.
The plan will catalogue all the existing resources and trail planning in the county.
It also will include “a vision for improving walkability in our community” to improve health and well-being, James said.
He called time spent with the Walking College a way of giving back.
“It’s thinking ahead a couple of generations,” James said. “I may not see the improvement I advocate for, but someone may generations from now.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.