Klickitat Trail backers gain ground with state

Friday, December 13, 2002
By HOWARD BUCK, The Columbian staff writer

OLYMPIA, WA— The fate of the 31-mile former rail bed known as the Klickitat Trail landed in the lap of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission on Thursday, with trail proponents clearly gaining momentum.

The seven-member panel is scheduled to vote Jan. 30 on whether to let the undeveloped trail revert to the nonprofit Rails to Trails Conservancy, a move supporters fear could jeopardize its future.

Speakers supporting continued state ownership of the trail outnumbered opponents 24 to 3. The U.S. Forest Service bolstered supporters hopes with a letter urging the commission to retain title to the corridor for at least another year. The Forest Service is considering designating the rail bed a national recreation trail.

“The Forest Service has the highest interest in portions between Lyle and Pitt, as these first 11 miles … are within the Klickitat Wild and Scenic River,” wrote Kim Titus, acting manager of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. “However, the entire corridor offers potential recreation benefits and potential economic benefits to the communities of Lyle and Klickitat.”

Titus said she has already begun discussions with the Yakama Nation and Klickitat County elected officials who have concerns about a developed public trail.

Trail advocates pledged to recruit a wave of volunteers to see the project through without putting new demands on state parks’ cash-starved budget.

“You will not be alone in your ownership,” said Pamela Springer of Lyle, who frequently cleans up litter with her young daughter on trail walks. “We can all work together to share a trail we can all cherish.”

The recent groundswell of support has prompted the Forest Service to resurrect its trail plan, which was shelved in the mid-1990s because of political opposition from a small but vocal group of property owners along the trail.

“We didn’t have this (support) the first time around,” said Michael Ferris of the scenic area office.

In 1994, the state parks agency accepted title to the former Burlington Northern rail corridor in a caretaker role. But the commission has already spent $635,000 on repairing flood damage to the trail, answering legal challenges and responding to increasingly bitter confrontations between users and some adjacent property owners.

In early November, parks officials posted signs closing the trail until after the January meeting in Lacey.

But backers said the recreation, tourism and economic benefits the trail offers are too promising to discard.

The Klickitat Trail offers a rare link connecting the wild and scenic Klickitat River with the drier hills to the east along Swale Creek. In contrast to steep gorge trails, its gentle grade makes it accessible to young and old visitors while offering spectacular access to rare wildflowers and oak woodlands, trail proponents said.

The economically depressed towns of Lyle and Klickitat could prosper from a stream of cyclists and hikers, they noted. And though hikers from Portland and Vancouver already are drawn to the trail, “Some of us would just like this to be a playground for Klickitat County,” said Tim Young of Goldendale.

Critics respond

Three critics cited questionable deed claims and warned of potential fire dangers and impacts to salmon restoration work as reasons to postpone development of the rail corridor.

“One match, and that puppy is gone,” said Allen Tooke of Portland, who owns land along the lower Klickitat. Many owners have worked to restore fish habitat along the river, he said. “You get the idea the owners are all a bunch of woodchucks, and that’s not true.”

Clifford Casseseka, a Yakama Nation representative, demanded that the state conduct formal talks with the tribe. The Yakama are concerned because the trail skirts an Indian cemetery, petroglyphs and a tribal treaty fishing area near Lyle.

“These are not public lands!” Casseseka asserted. “Where’s the justice?”

Commissioner Rex Derr answered that the state will properly address the tribal concerns.

Charles Montange, a Seattle attorney who helped negotiate the 1993 conservancy purchase, insisted landowners’ legal window for filing claims against the railbanking has closed for good. All state and federal court cases have come up empty, he said.

“There are no legal issues — you’ve won,” he told commissioners, dropping off an inch-thick briefing paper.

Vancouver resident Lehman Holder, speaking for the Loo-wit Council of the Sierra Club, added, “This is indeed an issue of property rights: Public property rights.”

On Jan. 30, the parks commission will choose from staff-developed options for handling the trail.
Written testimony will be accepted through Jan. 2, and the options made public by mid-January.
Howard Buck reports on the Legislature and state government from The Columbian’s Olympia bureau. He can be reached at

360-586-2437 or via e-mail at howard.buck@columbian.com.


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