After months of review and controversy, the U.S. Forest Service has reached a final decision regarding the status of the proposed Klickitat Rail-Trail.
On Dec. 19, Dan Harkenrider, area manager for the Forest Service/Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, said the option he selected would lead to development of the segment of the former railroad corridor between Lyle and Klickitat into a public trail.
The segment totals 13.5 miles, and would be designed for hikers, bikers, and riders on horses. The trail is to be developed and managed by the Forest Service, in partnership with the Washington State Parks & Recreation Commission.
"After reviewing the analysis in the environmental assessment (EA) and considering comments from the public, I believe this alternative is the most viable option for future Forest Service management of the Klickitat Trail," explained Harkenrider. "The Klickitat Trail will provide a unique year-round recreational trail opportunity for a variety of users, help to protect the Klickitat Wild & Scenic River, and bring economic benefits to the rural communities in the eastern part of the Columbia River Gorge."
The Forest Service currently oversees the lower 10.8 miles of the Klickitat River, which is within the Wild & Scenic River boundaries. The trail parallels the river along most of the route.
Harkenrider's decision means that less than half of the original railroad corridor will be developed as a trail, at least for the foreseeable future.
The full corridor, which was operated by Burlington Northern Railroad until 1992, stretched from Lyle to Goldendale, a distance of 42 miles. In August 1993, BN sold its rights in the Lyle-Warwick portion of the railbanked corridor (31 miles) to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
Railbanking is a legal process that preserves former railroad corridors for possible future re-establishment for railroad use.
The total cost of developing the Lyle-Klickitat segment has been pegged at $3.6 million. According to Mike Ferris, public affairs staff officer for the Forest Service, the price tag represents one-time development costs.
"Most of the cost is for the three trailheads, for parking areas, restrooms, and water," Ferris explained. "We'll put in the necessary elements to make this a high-quality trail."
Trailheads are planned for Lyle, Pitt, and Klickitat. Restrooms, drinking water, and limited parking for cars and horse trailers will be available.
The first 1.6 miles of the trail, from Lyle to the Fisher Hill bridge area, is expected to have a 12-foot wide hardened surface. The next 11 miles, to Klickitat, would have a six-foot wide compacted surface. The portion of the trail within Klickitat itself would feature a 12-foot hardened surface.
Ferris added that the work could go to local contractors, thereby helping to boost the area economy.
"We'll try to look for local resources when we bid it," Ferris explained. "The biggest issue for trail improvements will be safety related -- anywhere we identify safety concerns. A good example is decking the trestles, like at Fisher Hill bridge, for instance."
Ferris said once the initial improvements are taken care of, annual maintenance has an estimated cost of $48,000.
The improvements are expected to be implemented in three phases, as funding becomes available.
"It will probably be a one- to three-year period to get this done," Ferris explained.
Ferris said money for the first section of the trail will become available on Oct. 1, 2004, the beginning of the federal government's fiscal year.
"Prior to that, there is engineering and design work to do along the 13.5-mile section to get the trail ready for improvements," Ferris said. "As we're working on that, we'll be finalizing an agreement with State Parks."
Supporters offered qualified praise for the decision reached by the Forest Service.
"We're pleased they're going to go ahead and manage the bottom half of the trail," said Jim Minick, secretary of the Klickitat Trail Conservancy. "We could have wished for the whole trail, but we've come so far from a year ago. State Parks was going to let it go, now here we are. We're very enthusiastic, but cautious because there could still be legal challenges to the EA."
Minick said development of the trail will mean that "the people in Klickitat, as well as in Lyle, will have a nice paved section through town for kids to ride their bikes safely."
Minick pointed out, however, that the Forest Service's decision left the status of the remainder of the former railroad corridor in limbo.
"We're not sure what will happen to the top half," Minick said.
Ferris pointed out that the Forest Service is not planning to make any financial contribution on the upper portion.
County officials said they had not yet had time to review the decision.
Klickitat County Commissioner Don Struck said the county had stressed its concerns regarding the trail, and had not yet seen a response to those issues.
"We're waiting to see how the Forest Service responds to the concerns the county had," Struck said. "They are supposed to provide written comment to the county's questions."
Struck said there were several areas of concern, including: law enforcement issues, a legal description of where the railbed is, sanitary considerations, and fire danger.
"When we met with Dan Harkenrider, he said there would be written responses to all concerns noted in its final response in January," Struck explained. "I don't have a problem with it provided they apply for all the necessary county permits to meet the Shoreline Act and other requirements by the county."
Struck pointed out that the right of way has shifted over the years due to flooding and other land movements.
"No one denies the state's right to have a trail there, but where is it?" Struck questioned. "In some places, it's outside the original easements. All we've asked is to identify where the easement is, and draft a legal description. If I were a landowner there, I'd want to know that too."
Concerns with how the trail could impact livestock is another serious issue, Struck said.
"Much of that corridor is in open range," Struck said. "If the state wants to manage the trail, there may be conflicts between dogs and sheep, lambs, and cattle. And if they fence the railbed, which is probably a good idea, they need to be sure and allow for livestock to be able to get to the river to get their water. There may be conflicts between domestic animals and animals on open range -- and maybe even conflicts between animals and people."
Lori Zoller, one of the leaders of those opposing creation of a public trail along the corridor, could not be reached for comment.
However, on Dec. 2, Zoller -- a landowner with property along the proposed trail near Klickitat -- attended a meeting of the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners in Goldendale. At that meeting, Zoller told the commissioners that she is part of a group of 128 area landowners that "is very dedicated to their cause in opposition to what is going on with regard to the Klickitat Trail."
Zoller told the commissioners the landowners group was formed 11 years ago, and that recently the group had retained legal counsel from the Washington, D.C., area that specializes in "rails-to-trails" litigation.
According to the minutes of the Dec. 2 meeting, Zoller said "there will be a series of suits claiming illegal railbanking and fraudulent usage, culminating in a compensation suit."