By RACHAL PINKERTON
Not everyone is excited about the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail. Land owners in Grant and Adams counties don’t like having strangers in their backyard. In the spring of 2015, a few eastern Washington lawmakers tried to sneak a provision into a budget bill that would have given approximately 130 miles of trail east of the Beverly Bridge to adjacent property owners.
“It went unnoticed until the session was over,” said Robert Yates, a board member for the Palouse to Cascades Trail Coalition. “It happened without any public meetings.”
Because of an error in the section of the trail to be given to landowners, the trail remained intact. But the incident alerted proponents of the trail to the need to protect the trail. In March 2016, the Friends of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, now Palouse to Cascades Trail Coalition, was started.
In 2016, the parks department went through a planning process that included both those in favor and those opposed to the trail. But there is still animosity toward the trail.
One of those opposed at the legislative level is Senator Mark Schoesler.
“I think the state parks have been a very bad neighbor to adjacent property owners,” Schoesler said. “There are other state parks in dire need of improvements.”
Schoesler thinks that the money should go into places like Palouse Falls that see a substantial amount of people each year.
“Why put money into a trail that is for real long-distance hikers?” asked Schoesler. “Steptoe Butte is an incredible wonder. It really needs attention. Park after park needs attention. Where is the best value to Americans? That is not the trail. A limited number of people use it.”
Schoesler doesn’t agree with the claims of state park officials who say that the trail will economically benefit the small towns that the trail goes through.
“It could bring in more people, people with small children,” Schoesler said. “Older Americans are not going to be there. State parks is an absolute terrible neighbor. They don’t take care of the weeds or fencing. They don’t even own the entire trail. Some parts went back to private ownership. If you don’t have the entire trail, you’re probably not going to complete it. I’m guessing that $100 million would need to be put into the trail for what proponents want. If we put $100 million into our parks, we could have a park system second to none. It’s the number of people that use one segment verses recreation for all ages.”
While trail users east of the Columbia River are required to have a permit to use the trail, that doesn’t calm landowners’ worries.
“If strangers come to your door and there no law enforcement for 30 miles, you’d be a little nervous,” said Schoesler. “They’ve used fence posts for campfires. A lot of people are not responsible. They want something for nothing.”
The exception to that is the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders. Schoesler said that they are very responsible people.
The permits were a way to help property owners ease some of their concerns.
“They wanted to know who was on the trail and when people would be on the trail,” said Kline. “Because of the homeless issues, they want to know when people are coming through and that it is for legitimate recreational purposes. It’s really important for them to know what is going on with the trail.”
When someone applies for a permit, an email is sent to adjacent property owners with the information. But the people applying for the permits have also expressed concern about what information property owners are getting. They are concerned that a property owner is going to come up to them while they are on the trail.
“That would be awkward,” Kline said.
Kline said that once more facilities are available along the trail, the parks department will look to eliminate the permits entirely. In the meantime, the parks department is using the permitting process to alert trail users to the condition of the trail, the lack of potable water, the heat, the lack of facilities and the limited cell phone reception.
When it came to voting for improvements to the trail found in the capital budget, Schoesler found himself in a difficult spot.
“You have one choice in the capital budget,” said Schoesler. “It’s all or nothing. I supported Senator Warnick and the Beverly Bridge. But I had a segment jammed on my section that I didn’t want. Five or six of our communities had really good capital budget projects. If I protest vote against this, all of these communities would suffer. I was in a very unenviable position. You can’t tell Rosalia that their water project is not important.”
Adams County landowners aren’t the only ones with concerns about the trail. The Port of Royal Slope would like to put rails down on the old rail bed.
In the fall of 2015, the Port of Royal Slope was given possession by the state of the old Milwaukee line between Royal City and Othello, totaling 26 miles of track. It connects to the Columbia Basin Railroad who moves fright from Othello to Connell, where cars are connected up with BNSF trains headed to Seattle.
On June 3, the Port of Royal Slope passed a resolution requesting that the governor affirm the priority of rail over the trail as it concerns the Renslow Trestle and Beverly Bridge. The port would like to use the existing railbed and put railroad tracks back down from Royal City to Ellensburg. The purpose of this would allow freight from Royal City to reach Seattle faster. As of the writing of this story, the governor has not responded. But the Washington State Parks Department has talked with the port.
“Between Royal Slope and Warden, there is a 30 mile section of live rail,” Kline said. “That section was initially owned by the Department of Natural Resources. They basically gave it to the Port of Royal Slope. There has been a discussion of a rail corridor from Royal City to Ellensburg. That’s probably not going to become a reality in the near future. What I said to them is that nothing we’re going to do in terms of establishing the trail will eliminate options for putting rail there if the legislature deems it appropriate. We will maintain the weeds. We’re keeping it in public ownership. If it goes into private ownership, it is almost impossible to assemble something like that. I don’t think our mission runs counter to what they want to do. The rail corridor will be there waiting.”
Kline said that the parks department is working with landowners and the Port of Royal Slope.
“We are willing to work with every single adjacent property owner,” said Kline. “The behavior that people are seeing and experiencing on the trail, that’s what happens where no one is out there policing. We don’t have problems with bikers, hikers and horseback riders. We don’t have problems with vandalism. Any property owner who had issues with that, we’ll work with them. The concerns that we hear from property owners, we hear from all around the country. We do see people that say ‘We love this trail. We’re glad it’s here.’ That’s the way it is west of the Columbia River. We hope to get there too.”
Rachal Pinkerton may be reached via email at email@example.com.