During a Jan. 30 meeting in Lacey, the Washington State Parks & Recreation Commission decided to allow the public back onto the Klickitat Rail-Trail -- but with one disclaimer.
"They took down the `closed' signs on the trail," said Bill Koss, manager of planning for Washington State Parks. "We have to make a distinction between opening the trail -- which they didn't do -- but they took down the closed signs."
Washington State Parks closed the trail to public use in October, but lifted that directive as of Feb. 1.
The trail was created from a former Burlington Northern Railroad right of way after the trackage was removed in 1993. The route stretches from Lyle to Warwick, a distance of 31 miles. Much of the corridor follow the Klickitat River through scenic Swale Canyon.
Despite the action from the seven-member commission, Koss noted that the trail is still not officially open to the public.
"It's still a `railbanked interim corridor not yet ready for public use,'" Koss said. "It has reverted back to the state it was in before public use was prohibited."
In a Feb. 3 statement from the Washington State Parks & Recreation Commission, the nebulous nature of the trail's status was obvious: "Although State Parks does not encourage the public to use the undeveloped property, it is not illegal if individuals go onto the property," read an excerpt from the opening paragraph.
However, trail supporters got mostly good news from the commission: Washington State Parks will maintain ownership of the corridor while the U.S. Forest Service considers how -- and whether -- it will manage the corridor.
Klickitat County Commissioner Ray Thayer said the commissioners had not yet seen anything formal from Washington State Parks on the status of the trail. However, the commissioners met with Kim Titus from the U.S. Forest Service to discuss the trail.
"One thing that came out of that meeting is that State Parks will be doing title work on the trail, to hopefully answer some of the questions about ownership," Thayer explained.
Property rights issues regarding the former right of way have generated controversy since the tracks were removed in 1993 and a trail proposed on the old roadbed.
"The only thing I've seen is that the trail is apparently open, but State Parks is discouraging its use. I don't understand how that works," Thayer said. "But it sounds like things are in motion to try and resolve this."
To support development of the trail, a non-profit entity known as the Klickitat Trail Conservancy was recently formed in Lyle.
"It was formed in mid-January," explained Jim Minick, secretary for the conservancy. "We're a voluntary organization to publicize and provide work crews as needed for improvements or picking up trash along the trail."
Minick added that any hikers using the trail are encouraged "to be completely respectful of the property owners along the trail," Minick said.
"The commission approved staff recommendations to continue ownership of the Klickitat Trail and to support its development ... Mindful of community concerns that require resolution over the long term, the commission supports efforts by the U.S. Forest Service and trail support groups to develop and manage the trail for public recreation ... State Parks also will enter into an agreement that allows a non-profit group such as the newly-formed Klickitat Trail Conservancy, to help cover costs for operation and management of the trail and to allow volunteer efforts along the trail," read the statement.
"The commission committed to retaining ownership while the U.S. Forest Service completes its evaluation," Koss said, "and accepted an offer of financial support from the Klickitat Trail Conservancy to help defer management costs during the Forest Service evaluation period."
If the Forest Service does not enter into a management agreement for the trail by Sept. 30, 2003, the trail will revert to ownership by the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy.
The U.S. Forest Service is expected to begin a new planning process for the trail, with public hearings planned for Feb. 25 at Lyle High School and Feb. 27 at Klickitat High School. Both meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m.
Koss conceded that it remained unclear whether opposition from some adjacent property owners has blown over. Koss also pointed out that the Yakama Indian Nation has concerns about public access to the former railroad corridor.
"There hasn't been public use on that corridor, so it's hard to say what will happen when public use starts again," Koss noted.