By JODY ALLARD
Gorge News Report
The ongoing struggle between trail proponents and property rights advocates continued in Klickitat recently as a group of more than 15 local landowners gathered at Klickitat High School to show support for the "Rails to Trails" project.
Rails to Trails is a national organization that acquires land formerly used for railroad tracks and changes them corridor into a public trail. Locally, the issue has stirred controversy since its inception in Klickitat County in 1994.
At the root of the controversy is ownership of the land. Although much of the 31-miles trail (between Lyle and Goldendale) was deeded to the Burlington Northern Railroad, an estimated 20-30 percent of the land used by the railroad was allowed through easements obtained from property owners.
Despite legal challenges filed by adjacent property owners, the courts have repeatedly supported the use of former railroad lands for public trails.
Known as "railbanking," Congress has supported the practice of using former railroad lands for future transportation needs. Under congressional authority, the Rails to Trails organization has created a network of public trails stretching from coast-to-coast. In Klickitat County, land for a public trail from Lyle to Centerville has been acquired by Rails to Trails and transferred into the hands of Washington's Parks and Recreation Commission for management.
To date, the right of way remains undeveloped.
Unwilling to give up rights to what some property owners consider their land, landowners have allegedly harassed trail users, according to Rails to Trails representative Jeff Ciabotti.
Ciabotti pointed to the recent prosecution of a Klickitat High School senior who was using the trail to work on his senior project, and said the organization was "surprised and outraged" by local reaction to the trail project.
"We're a bit outraged that the local Sheriff's Department, in conjunction with some landowners, have conspired to arresting people who legitimately want to use part of that public trail," Ciabotti said.
Although the charges against the youth were dismissed "without prejudice," Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney Tim O'Neill said "no determination has been made" as to whether the charges will be re-instituted later.
Trespassing charges against the high school senior were initially filed following an investigation by the Klickitat County Sheriff's Office, but were later dismissed because the youth was in Europe, according to O'Neill.
"If it is re-instituted, we will make sure [that he went off the trail] before anything is done in the future," said O'Neill. "Because there is such an issue over where the trail is actually located, we would have to make sure where the trail is and where it is in relation to the property of the individual claiming there is a trespass."
According to Karl Jacobs, a land program representative for Washington State Parks, the trail has not been developed and is not marked by any signs.
"It's just the old rail bed with your typical, angular ballast rocks that would've been there when the railroad was there," Jacobs said.
Lyle landowner Jim Minick was one of the handful of local residents who walked a one-mile stretch of the trail during last Thursday's meeting.
Following an altercation with a property owner while attempting to use the trail last year, Minick called the state and became involved in the fight for the trail.
"It's kind of frightening to walk down the trail. You just don't know what's going to happen," Minick said. "The adjacent landowners will illegally come out and harass the people who were attempting to use this state property, and call the Sheriff's Office. The Sheriff's Office would come out and escort people from the land, supposedly for their own safety."
During the Aug. 1 walk, Minick said they were confronted by one landowner, and a KCSO deputy was called to the scene.
"He told us that he had directions from the sheriff that he was not to interfere with us as long as we stayed on the trail," Minick explained. "That's a big departure from everything I've heard in the past. I think this is only because we had an attorney with us."
Sheriff Chris Mace said that to his knowledge, no deputies had escorted trail users from the land.
"It's a real bone of contention between the landowners and State Parks ... but not so much for law enforcement," Mace said. "If we're called down there for any reason, we investigate it and then report what we've been able to find to the Prosecutor's Office."
Bill Jolly, a representative of Washington State Parks, said the state has consistently run into problems with local landowners and county officials.
"The issue that we perceive is that some adjoining property owners ... apparently continue to monitor anyone who is on the trail, charging them with trespassing on private property, and calling the Sheriff's Department for assistance," Jolly said. "When adjacent property owners actually physically intervene or charge public users that they are trespassing and then summon the Sheriff's Department deputies to pursue trespassing charges, that's going too far. It's not defensible by law."
Jolly emphasized that Washington State Parks legally owns the land and could pursue legal action against landowners who attempt to obstruct public use of the trail.
"It is important that the general public realizes the legal status of that corridor," Jolly said.
Some "no trespassing" signs were removed from the trail during the walk, Minick said. Abandoned vehicles and snowmobiles that lined -- and in some cases blocked -- the trail have been reported to the state.