Bob Thomas appears to be giving a kitchen-table slide show, but in his mind he’s really biking along the Coeur d’Alene River.
In autumn. On a smooth swath of pavement that used to be a polluted railroad track.
“We’ve got 72 miles of fall color!” he says as the wall glows with a scene of cottonwoods flanking a train trestle. “And it’s all water level! People with wheelchairs or walking problems can get on and off.”
Thomas is a former Idaho parks board director. The Post Falls retiree has long been smitten with the idea of making a regional bicycle/hiking trail out of the polluted, abandoned Union Pacific Railroad line that runs from Plummer to Mullan.
The idea is picking up steam.
The federal Surface Transportation Board is on the verge of deciding whether the line should be “rail banked.” The request was made by the national Rails to Trails Conservancy.
Rail banking means the land wouldn’t be sold piecemeal. It would be preserved, leaving open the possibility that it could be resurrected as a rail corridor.
Most significantly, depositing this strip of land into the rail bank would open formal negotiations between Union Pacific and the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation.
UP has already offered to build a trail and give it to the state.
The arrangement would be unusual.
“We’d have the first trail ever that would be donated and paved, and basically ready to operate,” says Leo Hennessey, Idaho’s coordinator for non-motorized trails.
Charles Clark, Union Pacific’s representative in Boise, says the company has long promoted the rails-to-trails idea.
“We’d like to convey it completely to the state of Idaho, and that would be the end of it.”
Fight over liability
Union Pacific wants an end to liability.
Gov. Phil Batt is adamant that the state not assume any.
Whoever owns the right of way is responsible for any harm from lead and other metals that dropped from trains that served the Silver Valley mines and Bunker Hill smelter.
“This railroad has been carrying concentrates in and out of the valley for 100 years,” says attorney Howard Funke. “The cars all had drainholes in them, allowing the rainwater to run through the concentrates and drain out the bottom.”
Funke works for the Coeur d’Alene Indians. Some people see the tribe as the biggest opponent of the trail proposal. But tribal officials say they just want the job done right.
“You’re inviting people to recreate in a very contaminated valley. They’re not just going to stay on the trail,” says Funke. “They’re going to want to go swimming, go hiking off the trail.”
Funke gives Union Pacific high marks for its good will in rails-to-trails negotiations.
One point of discussion is whether it’s adequate to “cap” the polluted strip with pavement, or if removal of the metals is necessary.
The state insisted on removal along the seven miles of track on the Superfund toxic cleanup site, which surrounds the defunct smelter at Kellogg. Union Pacific has already signed an agreement to do that.
Beautiful and practical
Kellogg is Mike Domy’s stomping grounds.
Domy, owner of Excelsior Cycle & Sport Shop, knows all about the metals contamination. His neighbors remind him that Union Pacific used to pay Boy Scouts to shovel spilled ore from the tracks.
But Domy is looking to the future. He’s one of the bike trail’s biggest boosters.
“This is a world-class thing, an unbelievable thing,” he says. “It goes past 12 lakes, eight to 10 miles of Lake Coeur d’Alene, 30 to 40 miles along the river.”
The western part of the trail, with its isolation and watery views, is the most beautiful. That’s where otters play in Lake Coeur d’Alene, and the swans and geese socialize in the small lakes strewn along the big river.
But the eastern end, with mountains rising to the north and south, is rife with history that gives the Silver Valley its name.
Domy thinks a trail would help the tourism economy roll along at a steadier pace. Towns all along it would benefit when bikers stopped to eat, buy souvenirs, park their vehicles.
A bike path would also tie Silver Valley communities together in a way Interstate 90 can’t, Domy says.
“It’s a commuter connection, if somebody lives in Smelterville and works in Kellogg, which is a mile and a half,” he says. “An 8-year-old could ride from Elizabeth Park to Osburn.”
The trail would connect to mountain bike trails, including those at the Silver Mountain ski resort. It would link entire states, connecting existing trails in Washington and Montana.
Thomas, the former parks board member, dreams of a spur trail over Fourth of July Pass. It would connect the Centennial Trail to the Plummer-to-Mullan bikeway.
There are lots of high hopes for the trail.
Cataldo residents would like the path to be built high enough to serve as a dike, and keep floodwaters out of their town.
The February flood took a heavy toll on the track, which in places hangs unsupported after dirt and rail washed away. Union Pacific is assessing the damage now.
Repairs could lead to a better and safer river corridor, says attorney Charles Montagne, a rails-to-trails expert in Seattle.
“This is not solely a recreation project. It should be viewed as an engineered barrier that would deal with preventing the spread of contamination.”
Who pays the bills?
Some people worry that the state’s unwillingness to pay for future operation of the trail could doom the proposal.
“Idaho’s kind of a poor state. They’ve run into problems with the Centennial Trail,” says John Maucieri, who lives south of Harrison and looks down on the railroad line. “If UP is going to leave an endowment to maintain it … we’d like to make sure the money is earmarked for upkeep of the trail, with no possibility of them raiding it for something else.”
There are 30 to 40 homeowners along the trail between the St. Joe River and Harrison. They have agreements with Union Pacific to cross the railroad to get to their docks on Lake Coeur d’Alene.
If the line does not become public property, they fear they might be put in a position of buying the land to protect their access, then having to pay taxes for waterfront property. Still, some are opposed to a bike trail, fearing vandalism or loss of privacy.
“My mother is adamantly opposed to it,” says Maucieri. “Some of the older people see it as an infringement on property rights.”
Hennessey plans to meet with Harrison-area residents on April 10 to answer their questions, and says he’s willing to do the same in other towns.
There are few definite answers yet. Everyone is waiting to hear that the right-of-way has been rail banked.
Then environmental studies could begin in earnest.
Then a “Friends of the Trail” organization could be started to support the proposal.
Meanwhile, whenever he can, Thomas continues to show his slides of the Plummer-to-Mullan route: the arched trestles, the straight lines of rail punctuating wetlands, the rippling mountain horizons.
He dreams about cruise boats carrying people from Coeur d’Alene down to Heyburn State Park, where they could get on the trail - following the route of steamboats enjoyed by early-day tourists.
“It’s another one of my crazy ideas.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo