An interview with Mary Kromrey and John Montgomery from Ozark Greenways
Interview by Jeremy Lux, article by Eric Gasa
If it’s anything that Mary and John from Springfield’s Ozark Greenways love, it’s the ground beneath their feet. Literally. Naturalists and conservationists at heart, the two are on a mission to improve the city they call home. The mission of Ozark Greenway has always been a bold one, but if Mary and John have their way they hope to line all of Springfield with trails that will connect the local community with the natural world around them. Sitting down with them, Jeremy Lux discusses the history of the Ozark Greenway, how they plan to make Springfield the walkable city of the future, and the time someone let out an alligator on the trail. Yes, you read that last part correctly. All that and more on the Life in Motion podcast!
For Mary, the program’s executive director, the Greenway trails are more than just a strip of pavement but a legacy, a gift back to the community.
“Sometimes when talking about the Greenway people say ‘Oh, it’s just a trail! Just a path through the woods.’ But it’s so much more than that,” she explains.
“When you look at health outcomes, economic outcomes, environmental outcomes, conservation outcomes, when you look at just what the trails do for social connectivity and community-building, they play a huge role,” she continues, “This is world-saving for us.”
Given the constant stresses of the modern world, going outside for a walk has never been more therapeutic. For Mary, the relationships we share with the earth are a reflection of our physical, mental, and social health. The first thing to do is just walk out the door. This is also how John became involved in the program as well. As a longtime hiker and outdoorsman, John has used the Greenway trails as long as he could remember. Today, he is the proud trail manager of the Frisco Highline.
“I grew up in Springfield,” shares John, “I've lived here my whole life. I was born in the late 70s and spent most of my childhood doing outdoor activities with my family.”
Back then there wasn’t that much to do in Springfield so John passed a lot of the time biking in local adventure races. John later discovered the Ozark Greenways and volunteered regularly for years. In 2010, he was asked to join the organization’s board and is now the Frisco Highline Trail Manager.
But before it was the Ozark Greenways the program was called Project Parkway in the 1980s. Back then Project Parkway’s mission was to help restore the urban tree canopy.
“What spurred people to action back then is when Chestnut Expressway was under construction and so many trees were removed,” explains Mary. “This mobilized folk to say, ‘Hey, what can we do to start being proactive about preserving our tree canopy?’ There was also a group of folks that really wanted to see Springfield become a safer place for bicyclists.”
These two goals later morphed into what we now know as the Ozark Greenways starting in 1991. Mary prides the program for its passionate volunteers and “very boots on the ground” attitude when it comes to beautifying the city. In fact, that’s exactly how the popular clearing near Galloway was made. Blood, sweat, and determined volunteers with shovels. But cutting trails across town is much harder than just picking up a spade though. There is a process that must take place between the city, private landowners, and the public. Before the gang can break ground, plans must be outlined regarding zoning and how the trail will roll out over the topography.
“It’s not simple as you may think,” John elaborates, “You call them challenges but we call them opportunities.”
Springfield may not have an elaborate rail or public transit system, but it can certainly be a place that caters to those who travel by foot or bike. Simply put a city that is connected together grows together.
“This is no longer just a wild and crazy dream we thought up,” says Mary, “We’ve been building these robust trail systems and it's starting to click with people as they get more and more connected. Folks are realizing, gosh, this would really be cool if we had designated places for folks to bicycle and walk that are safe.”
Mary smartly mentions the otherwise overlooked economic positives of the trails.
“We've got 26% of our folks in Springfield that live below the poverty line who have to utilize their feet, bus, wheelchair or bicycle to get themselves from here to there. So it's rising tides lift all boats in this circumstance.”
If all goes as planned Ozark Greenways plans to build an impressive 136-mile trail network throughout Springfield. Just be careful if you run into any alligators anywhere on the current 70 miles of trail because apparently that’s a thing. His name is Al Greenway and once upon an afternoon a couple happened across him on the trail. Mary’s guess is that somebody dumped their pet alligator in the area. Luckily, with the help of animal control Al was recovered safely.
But other than corralling gators, Ozark Greenway has plenty of surprises up its sleeve including partnerships with the expert trail guides at 37 North and plenty of great volunteer opportunities coming up. If there is anything else that Mary believes in it is the power of collective voices. She encourages people to demand more from their council members and municipalities to improve communities and renew the environment. Mary explains that is how you create a groundswell. An individual voice may get drowned out in the noise but a collective shout is a chorus for change.
“So call them up if you value our trails and outdoors and let them know so they can start to be part of the solution,” says Mary, “These trails are so much more than just a path in the woods.”
For more information on the Ozark Greenways check out their website www.ozarkgreenways.org as well as their socials on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And of course to hear the full scoop on Al Greenway the gator and other upcoming trail projects, check out the Life in Motion podcast with Jeremy Lux on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play.