By ALISON HAYHOE
Gorge News Report
Friends and foes of the Klickitat Rail-Trail crowded into the Lyle Lions Club on Nov. 19 -- where even standing room was scarce -- to air views on the proposed 31-mile route.
The forum, hosted by Washington State Parks Director Rex Derr, offered individuals from both sides of the debate the opportunity to share their opinions with State Parks and the audience.
Those attending the hearing hailed from around Klickitat County, plus surrounding counties in Washington and Oregon. The crowd was estimated to number about 200.
"We were surprised at so many people, but we were really happy that people shared their concerns," said Virginia Painter, State Parks public affairs administrator.
In addition to Derr and Painter, Assistant Director for Resources Development Larry Fairleigh and Eastern Region Manager Jim Harris were on hand to represent State Parks. Mike Ferris represented the U.S. Forest Service at the forum.
The decision to hold the meeting followed a private conference called by State Sen. Jim Honeyford that brought together two property owners opposed to the trail with legislators, State Parks officials, and Klickitat County Planning Director Curt Dreyer.
An announcement following that (Oct. 30) meeting stated that the trail would be closed from Nov. 10 to Jan. 31 "to relieve tensions in the area while the commission considers public comment and makes a decision about State Parks' future with the property."
The agency has been holding the property since 1994, when the Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC) transferred the quit-claim deed on portions of the railbed to State Parks.
Derr said that State Parks would leave any determinations about trail disturbances during its closure to the discretion of local officers.
"We do not want to disrupt the non-disruptive activity that has been going on for years," Derr said.
The purpose of the meeting was to clarify State Parks' role in the trail, explain the temporary closure, and to gather comments for the commission, which will hear a report about the trail at its regular public meeting at 1 p.m. Dec. 12 in Olympia. According to State Parks, staff will "seek a commission decision" about the agency's long-term role on the property at the commission's public meeting Jan. 30, also in Olympia.
"The decision would just be, `What's our future role?'" Painter said. "Does the state continue working on this, or do we hand it to someone else to develop?"
Trail supporters and opponents alike at the meeting urged State Parks to develop the trail to minimize the long-standing conflict that surrounds it.
"Please do not abandon it," one trail supporter told State Parks. "This trail is an incredible asset to the region. It'll give tourists a reason to stay for a few extra days in our region."
People from both sides told Derr that confusion about where the trail is and what sort of trail use is legal has been a big part of the controversy.
Lori Zoller, spokesperson for dozens of property owners who oppose the trail, asked Derr for legal work to be done in the trail area, including a title search and easement search.
One individual questioned what would happen if the trail was handed back to the RTC.
"In very simple terms, it would be a private owner and not a public owner," Derr said, adding later in the meeting that State Parks wasn't prepared to do the kind of management the trail required.
Some who spoke offered examples of other trails in the nation where private groups have successfully developed a trail. A few said they were willing to volunteer to help with a similar project.
Another hot issue was the treatment of property -- private or not -- as a result of trail use. Those opposed to the trail asked the audience to consider how they would feel if their property was abused, or even simply used, by hikers, bikers, and horseback riders. Even use of nearby property was bothersome to some, since they chose to live in a rural area for peace and privacy, which could be disrupted by trail users, they said.
One Swale Canyon property owner said that he and others should be compensated if a developed trail ran through his property. Others expressed concern that a developed trail would take away property rights, as they said the Columbia Gorge Commission had done.
Several hikers, bikers, and trail proponents pledged to respect the route, praising its scenic benefits. Some pointed out that safe biking trails in the area were rare.
Property owner Don McDermott said that he didn't mind trail users; they were better than the noisy trains that used to rumble through the property he owns.
Bill Weiler, from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, however, said that trail users were having negative effects on that scenery, interfering with the health of fish and vegetation in Swale Canyon.
Clifford Cassasseka, a cultural resource specialist for the Yakama Nation, joined others in reminding Derr that many different groups should be factored into any trail decisions.
"You must deal with the Yakama Nation on this issue of the proposed trail," he said.
Cassasseka added that he was concerned about the land being abused and about who would enforce trail regulations.
Supporters asked for common ground so that the trail could benefit tourism and the local economy and offer a place for residents to hike in a family-friendly area.
Bob Hansen, an outspoken trail proponent who has participated in several hikes on the trail, called for cooperation between trail users, those with environmental concerns, and property owners.
"This trail is only a small part about us," Hansen said, adding he wished for it to leave a "legacy."