Klickitat County rail-to-trail plan proposed

Sunday, August 17, 2003

By KATHIE DURBIN, Columbian staff writer

Klickitat County, WA - The U.S. Forest Service is proposing to develop a hard-surfaced recreation trail along 15 miles of a former rail bed near the Klickitat River, filling a demand for more hiking trails on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge.

The agency proposes to improve the rail bed between Lyle and Klickitat and pave some of the widest and most accessible sections for use by cyclists, local residents and people in wheelchairs.

Most of the trail would follow a section of the river that is part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and already under Forest Service management.

Under the proposal, another 16 miles of rail bed between Klickitat and Warwick, which crosses rangeland and open terrain on the drier east side of the Cascades, would be left undeveloped.

"We don't have the resources available to manage the full 31 miles," said Stan Hinatsu, Forest Service recreation manager for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

The Forest Service estimates that it would cost between $4 million and $5 million to develop the 15-mile section between Lyle and Klickitat and $5.6 million to develop the entire 31-mile rail right-of-way. It predicts that about 49,500 hikers annually would use the longer trail, and about 38,500 would use the shorter 15-mile section.

Trail supporters say they will continue to press for designation of the entire 31 miles as a national recreation trail, a designation only the Forest Service's Northwest regional forester can confer.

"The push for us is still going to be the entire 31 miles," said Cheryl Steindorf, a resident of Klickitat who sits on the board of the recently established Klickitat Trail Conservancy. Developing the entire 31 miles will offer hikers a variety of terrains and give them an opportunity to hike through more isolated areas far from the river and highways, she said. "I think people will travel further to see it."

"I think it's a big step forward," said Bob Hansen, another conservancy board member. "Now we'll work with state parks to help manage the rest."

Not everyone supports development of the old rail bed.

The Yakama Nation, which has a traditional dipnet fishery on the lower Klickitat River near the old rail bed, plans to oppose the trail's development.

A few property owners along the rail right-of-way sued to stop an earlier Forest Service proposal to develop the trail. A representative of those property owners did not return a call for comment.

A diverse landscape

The Klickitat Trail offers spectacular river and canyon views as it follows a forested gorge of the Klickitat River north. It then heads east across high prairies and rolling hills before turning south to follow Swale Creek through canyons dotted with Oregon white oak and pine.

Developing the Klickitat Trail would fill a need for more hiking trails on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge, especially trails that are accessible year-round, Hinatsu said. The rail bed has a nearly level grade and is up to 16 feet wide in places.

"We feel it's a great opportunity for recreationists," Hinatsu said. "It provides a low-elevation trail for mountain bikers and hikers." Families "will be able to walk side by side by a beautiful river. And it's close to Portland."

Development of the trail could boost economic activity in the depressed former timber town of Klickitat, which has Klickitat County's highest unemployment rate, the agency said. The rail route passes through the center of town and a major trailhead would be located there.

But development of even 15 miles of the former Burlington Northern rail corridor will be expensive. Trestles will have to be decked and equipped with handrails for user safety, and flood damage along some sections of the trail will have to be repaired before surfacing with asphalt or some other hardened material can occur. Trailheads with parking will be needed at Lyle and Pitt as well as at Klickitat.

Development of the eastern half of the trail would require rerouting it in three locations damaged by the 1996 floods. It would also necessitate developing three additional trailheads, at Wahkiacus, Harms Road and Warwick.

A grassroots effort

The Klickitat Rails-to-Trails project almost died a year ago when State Parks and Recreation Commission President Rex Derr threatened to give the former Burlington Northern rail corridor back to the nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

The conservancy donated the right-of-way to the state in 1994 after acquiring it through the national rail-banking program. That program allows government agencies and land conservancies to obtain title to former railroad rights-of-way and develop them as trails, with the understanding that railroads might someday reclaim them for future use.

Derr said the state could not afford to develop the trail and that holding title to the rail corridor had cost it hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and security and maintenance costs since 1994. Last November, Derr ordered some sections of the undeveloped trail closed after a few property owners harassed hikers using the undeveloped trail.

But an outpouring of support from trail advocates persuaded the parks commission to overrule Derr's recommendation. In January, the commission voted to retain ownership and work with the Forest Service and others to develop the trail.

Volunteers formed the Klickitat Trail Conservancy and agreed to raise $5,000 to reimburse the state for costs associated with the trail. They filled that commitment by installing three portable toilets and contributing $2,500 toward the cost of placing signs along the trail. The conservancy's three dozen active members continue to organize hikes to familiarize people with the trail. In early August, they celebrated the one-year anniversary of their effort to get it designated a national recreation trail.

The Forest Service, in turn, agreed to prepare a new environmental assessment. It held a series of public meetings at which the concerns of property owners, local residents, Klickitat County officials and trail advocates were aired.

Tribe opposed

Tribal officials of the Yakama Nation are concerned that increased public access could disturb cultural artifacts in the area, including a cemetery, village sites and ancient pictographs and petroglyphs.

Individual tribal members who own trust land near the trail right-of-way in the Wahkiacus area are also opposed to the trail.

Tribal council vice chairman Jerry Meninick said the fishing site had been vandalized in the past, and he accused the Forest Service of failing to adequately consult with the tribe about the trail's alignment.

Recreation use in the Columbia River Gorge increasingly encroaches on Native American treaty sites, he said. He cited the example of Doug's Beach on the Columbia River, where Yakama commercial fishermen often find themselves crowded out by windsurfers.

"That is what is going to happen to the Klickitat Falls fishery," he predicted.

"Sooner or later we are going to be found to be in the way of a tourist attraction. We will be requested to remove our fishery or decrease the days we fish in the interest of the economy."

Hinatsu said the Forest Service tried to hold government-to-government meetings with the Yakama Tribal Council, but "for a number of reasons, those meetings were deferred or delayed."

He said the agency is willing to consider erecting visual barriers along the trail to protect the tribal fishing site and even close the trail during the tribe's annual First Foods ceremony.


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