by Ryan Burns
Going into the meeting it seemed that trails advocate Chris Weston and his Eel River Trails Association had built up some momentum in the effort to adapt the long-abandoned stretch or railroad between Willits and South Fork into a trail (while preserving the railroad right-of-way).
That the NCRA agreed to place the issue on its agenda suggested a possible lessening of its longstanding aversion to (or, perhaps, ignorance of) the topic. Yesterday, however, the agency's board summarily dismissed a resolution to seek proposals for a trail project.
Reached by phone today, NCRA Executive Director Mitch Stogner admitted that the NCRA has no intention of moving forward on a trails project anytime soon. "We're not ready to even consider railbanking because there hasn't been an organized group that's stepped forward that has financial backing," he said.
So how did the item get on the agenda? Stogner said the NCRA was intruigued by the concept of railbanking after Weston explained, at the agency's meetings in February and March, that the process allows for non-motorized uses like hiking, biking and horseback riding while reserving the option for the rail's eventual return. "Seems like a reasonable suggestion," Stogner said.
So the board asked staff to develop a suggestion on how to proceed. "What emerged was this resolution that, more than anything else, we thought might be starting point for discussion -- real discussion," Stogner said.
That discussion evidently came to a perfunctory halt when, like boys who set out halfheartedly to build a rocket ship, everyone was forced to acknowledge just how ambitious, complicated and expensive such an endeavor would be.
"The reaction from the board was, we're not ready to even consider railbanking because there hasn't been an organized group that's stepped forward that has financial backing," Stogner said. "We haven't fleshed out the legal issues. There isn't a good concept for what the conditions of the canyon are. We need a good capital assessment report. There's just a whole lot of unanswered questions, basically."
Stogner admitted that the prospect of trains returning to the stretch anytime soon is equally unlikely: "I think the current board of directors of the NCRA has correctly concluded that trains through the canyon are a long way off and will require extensive environmental review and massive amounts of money."
So is that the end of it? Is the line doomed to moulder for another decade? Not necessarily. Stogner said the board directed staff to do more homework on railbanking -- to research the rules, regulations and procedures. "But clearly the onus is going to be on the proposer," he said. "Someone's gonna have to step forward with a logical plan and logical funding. Nothing will happen until that happens."