A non-profit group is exuberant about its plans to repair and operate the Taft Tunnel Trail - never mind that the Forest Service says startup costs could range from $800,000 to $1.7 million.
“Our goal is to have it up and running by July 4 of next year,” said Jim Fowler, spokesman for the Taft Tunnel Preservation Society, a group formed in 1992 to fight for the survival of the historic rail trail.
The Taft Tunnel Trail, also known as the Route of the Hiawatha Rail-Trail, spans 15 miles of spectacular scenery near the Idaho-Montana border. Constructed by the Milwaukee Railroad between 1907 and 1909, it includes 10 tunnels and seven high steel trestles - now in need of some repair.
The society applied for a special-use permit to operate the trail as a concession in June. This week, the Forest Service opened the opportunity to apply for the permit to the public.
“Whenever someone applies for a special-use permit, we throw it open to see who’s interested,” said Jaime Schmidt, project coordinator for the trail. “The TTPS application will be seriously considered - as will anyone else who applies.”
Budget cuts have prompted a national trend to turn Forest Service concessions like campgrounds over to private entities, she said, adding that managing a project as large and visible as this one could be a challenge even with unlimited funding. This summer, safety and liability considerations forced the Forest Service to close the trail to the public.
When it’s reopened, the Taft Tunnel Trail could easily draw 20,000 visitors per year - 10 to 20 times the traffic seen by even the most heavily used trails in the St. Joe Ranger District, Schmidt said.
The agency has requested funding for the trail from Congress but doesn’t really expect to get it.
“The word we’re getting is that the outlook is grim for trail projects,” Schmidt said.
What makes TTPS think they can come up with enough money to handle the job?
Fowler declined to say anything specific about potential funding for the trail, other than that the group has “some really good leads” on private and government funding sources. But he did speak of the broad-based support that the project enjoys.
He said U.S. Sen. Larry Craig has asked the Senate Appropriations Committee to earmark $450,000 of the Forest Service budget for repair and operation of the trail, a fact confirmed by Norm Arseneault, a Craig aide.
“The senator has been very supportive of the project all along. The trail is unique in the country,” he said.
Fowler couldn’t agree more.
“The recreationists want this. The timber industry wants it. Our legislators are behind it,” he said. “It’s so rare to find a project that everybody wants, but everybody wants this.”