The Regional Forester for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area has determined that the Klickitat Rails-to-Trails project can proceed without further federal review.
In a letter to the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners, U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Linda Goodman responded to those who had requested a review of the environmental assessment for the trail project, which is expected to be managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Washington State Parks & Recreation Commission.
On Dec. 19, 2003, U.S. Forest Service Scenic Area Manager Dan Harkenrider approved the development of 13.5 miles of the former Burlington Northern railroad corridor for hikers, bikers, and riders on horseback. The segment slated for development stretches from Lyle to Klickitat.
The railroad right of way is slated for improvements with a 12-foot wide hardened surface on some sections of the trail and a six-foot wide compacted surface for the remainder.
In her letter, Goodman stated that she found that the Klickitat Rails-to-Trails project is consistent with the Management Plan for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act; that it is consistent with Lower Klickitat Wild and Scenic River Management Plan; and that the project will not have a significant impact on the human environment.
Goodman addressed several concerns that had been raised by those requesting a review of Harkenrider's trail decision. Seeking the review were the Klickitat County Commissioners, a private citizens group, and an individual citizen.
Goodman's findings included:
Agreeing with the findings in the Environmental Assessment (EA) and Decision Notice that making trail and management improvements to the abandoned railroad bed will not significantly affect the wild and scenic river (i.e., native American dip-net fishery, anadromous and resident fish, hydrology, and geology). Trail managers will continue working with the Yakama Tribal government to mitigate any effects of increased public trail use on native fishing and spiritual values;
Determining that the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area has the authority to work in partnership with Washington State Parks & Recreation, the owner of the railbanked corridor, to plan and manage the trail on the old railroad bed;
Finding that potential effects of future developments and management actions by the Forest Service on the state-owned trail were adequately disclosed, and that the planning process adequately involved the concerned public. "I concur with the `finding of no significant impact' ... and agree that the proposed trail project is not a major federal action that would require preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement," Goodman wrote.
Finding that the concerns voiced by the various parties have been adequately addressed, including the issue related to a survey of the trail right of way, which is the responsibility of Washington State Parks & Recreation. Goodman pointed out that State Parks has offered to "perform engineering surveys if a private landowner provides evidence of a conflict between the right of way and private lands."
Klickitat County Commissioner Don Struck said he was not surprised by the regional forester's decision regarding the trail.
"It's what we expected," Struck said. "We were encouraged they noted that State Parks will assist local folks with surveys and actual delineation of where the trail is on private property. It sounds like they are willing to do that. They also identified the need for sanitary services and law enforcement, and being mindful of open range issues."
Struck said protecting the rights of those property owners who live along the trail was always the primary motivation for the County Commissioners.
"We made our case for the protection of private property concerns," Struck explained. "It's incumbent on them to do everything they can to make it as even a transition as possible."
Bob Hansen, president of the Klickitat Trail Conservancy -- a non-profit organization created to support the trail -- was gratified to hear of Goodman's decision.
"It shows they were trying to do everything they could to address everybody's concerns. They were very deliberate in their approach," said Hansen, who lives in Lyle.
Hansen added that there seems to be decreasing controversy regarding the trail as time goes on.
"It seems to me the trail is pretty well accepted now," he explained.
Struck said he does not anticipate the county taking up the issue again.
"It's down on the list of priorities," Struck said. "I just hope it quiets down, and hope everyone can get along."
The opening phase of improvements to the trail are expected to begin after funds are released by the federal government in October.