No solid answers came out of last week's pair of public meetings regarding the proposed Klickitat "Rails-To-Trails" corridor.
Big crowds attended two meetings planned to address concerns and issues sparked by plans for a trail on the former Burlington Northern Railroad right of way between Lyle and Warwick. The public forums were held in Lyle on Tuesday night and in Klickitat on Thursday night, and both attracted approximately 100 citizens.
The uncertainty surrounding the proposed trail was highlighted by the opening statement of Kim Titus, the U.S. Forest Service's project manager for the corridor.
"We want to hear from you," Titus said. "We didn't come with answers."
The official objective of the Forest Service's "open house" forums in Lyle and Klickitat was "to determine whether or not, and to what degree, we should take on management of the Klickitat rail corridor as a trail and ... to validate whether or not we have knowledge of the most important issues to analyze in our planning process and to determine whether or not our past mitigations resolve the issues. We do not have the answers. We want to make sure we understand the questions."
Dan Harkenrider, USFS head of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, said he was the one who would ultimately decide what would happen with the corridor.
"I'm committed to make a decision, one way or the other," he said. "There are a number of decisions to be made. Is the Forest Service going to continue to participate in the trail, and what are the appropriate uses of the trail? If we are involved, will the plan be for two miles, nine miles, 11 miles, 31 miles?"
Harkenrider pointed out that the first 11 miles of the Klickitat River are designated as a "wild and scenic river" corridor, which is managed by the Forest Service. For most of that distance, the railroad roadbed parallels the river.
Lori Zoller, one of the leaders of property owners opposed to the proposed trail, asked why the Forest Service had not entered into a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review on the trail's possible impacts.
She noted that the former rail corridor has been a source of contention since 1993, and the SEPA and Shoreline Management Act studies had still not been completed.
"After 10 years, when will you enter into the planning process?" Zoller asked.
Harkenrider responded that he expected the environmental reviews to be conducted.
"We plan to incorporate all the issues and be `analysis efficient,'" Harkenrider explained, "and satisfy state rules at the same time."
Jim Minick, a trail supporter and member of the newly-created Klickitat Trail Conservancy, asked whether economic assistance for timber-dependent communities could go toward developing the trail.
"There is a mechanism for work to get done in timber-depressed counties," Harkenrider said. "All counties in Oregon and Washington receive timber payments for the loss of federal timberlands."
Harkenrider pointed out, however, that the specific uses of the funds were determined by the Board of County Commissioners in each county.
Some area residents expressed concern about reimbursement for potential property damage from fires resulting from activity on the trail.
"When the railroad had the right of way and the railroad caused fires, they were quick to compensate property owners," said one speaker. "If we lost outbuildings or fences, etc., they compensated us. Will the Forest Service have the same policy to compensate landowners for losses?"
Pete Peterson, fire management officer for the Forest Service in Hood River, said damage compensation would depend on the cause of the fire.
"As far as the claims, the railroad compensated owners when the railroad started the fire," Peterson said. "If it's natural causes, and we cut a fence to move heavy equipment in while we're fighting a fire, you could submit a claim for compensation."
Peterson added that the Forest Service would continue to work with the Washington Department of Natural Resources to fight fires, which is currently the way fire emergencies are handled.
Harkenrider stressed that the project could only work if "a lot of partners" stepped up to take on responsibilities for the trail.
"I'm asking folks to come to the table to help assist, rather than think the state or federal government will handle everything," he explained. "We're very interested in partners on this project."
In response to a question, Harkenrider said the Yakama Indian Nation could be involved in regulating recreational uses along the corridor, similar to the way the tribe provides recreational oversight at Bird Creek Meadows.
"We would welcome that kind of involvement and engagement from the Yakamas, but we're not there yet with them," Harkenrider said.
One citizen asked what would happen if the Forest Service were to completely walk away from the project. Harkenrider said that if there were to be no federal or state involvement, the trail corridor would revert to the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy (RTC). RTC acquired the railroad easement after Burlington Northern railbanked the line in 1993.
Minick emphasized his interest in working with the adjacent land owners.
"We're really looking to solve the issues and concerns as best we can," Minick said, "and address the legitimate concerns of the property owners. It's important to get those things ironed out."
Harkenrider said a draft environmental assessment on the proposed trail project would be released to the public by late May. A public comment period on that draft will follow. A final decision on the Forest Service's role with the trail corridor is expected to be made in July.