Somewhere in a land not so far away, an abandoned railroad could become the best rail trail in Washington.
Or maybe the worst.
The opportunity sounds like a dream come true. Budget-challenged Ferry County and its 7,500 residents are given, at no charge, a priceless rail corridor. The route runs 28.5 miles from the Canada border to an existing trail at Republic, the county seat.
Similar to the wildly popular Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, the Ferry County rail corridor includes numerous natural attractions. Among them:
•Curlew Lake for a 7-mile stretch, past resorts and over a trestle across the north end.
•Curlew State Park, with access to camping, picnicking and fishing.
•Kettle River for a 10-mile stretch that includes a tunnel and access to a county campground.
•Town of Curlew, with food, services and a nifty swimming beach.
•Safe route for Curlew kids to avoid traffic while accessing their school.
•Town of Republic and full services at the trail’s south end.
•Link to the Kettle Valley Rail Trail out of Grand Forks, British Columbia.
•Possibility for a one-of-a-kind 82-mile international horseshoe-shaped route linking 10 communities, including Kettle Falls, in the likely prospect that another stretch of railway is abandoned.
However, in three years of discussions the county commissioners have yet to develop anything resembling a plan for the railway.
The commissioners haven’t even adopted temporary ordinances such as limitations on motorized vehicle use to curb conflicts adjacent landowners have been enduring.
“Landowners who border the trail are not important to the commissioners,” said Dick Beers, who’s had run-ins with motorized users near his land along the railway at Curlew Lake. “The commissioners aren’t subject to recall in Ferry County. They’re lucky. One of them already has been voted out.
“We call the Sheriff’s Department about people roaring up and down, even at night, and they say there’s nothing they can do because there’s no ordinance against it.”
Only one of the three commissioners responded to interview requests last week as coal was being shoveled into the boiler of the rail-trail issue.
Commissioner Bob Heath, who was elected last fall, said the panel had been concerned about its authority to make rules for the trail. “I don’t know why the other two commissioners have been dragging their feet on this,” he said, noting that the deed was formally recorded just last week. “But with that taken care of, establishing some rules should be a top priority.”
The conflict is primarily between people who want a non-motorized rail trail and those who want it open to motorized vehicles, such as motorcycles and ATVs.
“This is a real anomaly,” said Fred Wert, a rail-trail expert, author and consultant from Winthrop. “This is the first time motorized groups have wanted to be involved in a rail trail in Washington.”
The state has about 80 rail trails, up from about 15 in 1987 when Wert began his research for a book.
“Rail trails are mostly flat and not generally what motorized users are looking for,” he said.
Some members of the Tri-County Motorized Recreation Association have suggested that all or at least three long segments of the railway should be open to motorized use as a trunk route to give ORVers access to adjacent roads or trails.
“That would guarantee that non-motorized people would not use the trail,” Wert said. “Who would want to bring their bikes and kids to a trail where motorcycles would be whizzing by them at 20 mph – or faster?”
Ferry County business owners tend to shy from public opinion. They are likely to profit from a rail trail no matter which way it’s managed – as long as it is developed.
But Mike Blankenship, an OHV enthusiast and former Ferry County commissioner unseated by Heath, has taken a firm stand that the area would reap more from the railway if it’s open to motorized use.
Some people suggest that Blankenship was voted out of office last fall for advocating the push for ORVs on the rail trail as well as spearheading an ordinance that allowed ORVs on county roads – a measure that was later struck down in a lawsuit.
“I don’t know (if that’s the reason) and I don’t care,” Blankenship said. “I stand for what’s good for Ferry County. What’s right for the county now is looking at that trail for multiple use.”
Ferry County is in a budget crisis, he said.
The 2003 closure of the Vaagen Bros. Lumber sawmill cost the Republic area about 85 good jobs.
That precipitated OmniTrax deeming their rails and ties more profitable in the scrap market than on a railway built in 1902.
Enter Bob Whittaker, an energetic, computer savvy, rock band tour manager and Seattle import with unruly hair and a parcel of Ferry County land. Whittaker started building his second home in the forest above the Kettle River in 2001. His mother lives in the valley.
“When I heard the railroad might be abandoned, I saw it as another nail in the coffin for this area and I wanted to help,” he said, noting that he joined Melisa Rose of Malo to form the nonprofit Ferry County Rail Trail Partners in 2007.
“I like getting junker cars and fixing them up. I saw this as win-win. Everything seemed to be positive for a while until the discussion turned to whether the rail corridor should be motorized or non-motorized. Then I started getting the cold shoulder.”
The OHV crowd doesn’t hide its disdain for Whittaker — son of the famous Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest, a businessman who catapulted the success of Recreational Equipment, Inc.
“Bob Whittaker is a no-no guy,” Blankenship said. “What we need is a committee of people who want to work together.”
Keith Wakefield, a retired forest service recreation specialist from the Republic Ranger District, has a different angle.
“Bob is the brain of the trail,” he said. “He’s very bright, educated and enthusiastic. He’s taking some heat for trying to steer the ship toward success.”
As tour chief for big-ticket groups —including alternative rock band R.E.M.— Whittaker has traveled the world dealing with difficult people, situations and rules.
The Ferry County rail trail issue is a challenge that ranks with the task of replacing a critical sound monitor after it crashed off a stage hours before an R.E.M. concert at Berlin’s Waldbühne Amphitheater.
“I come here from the road, and it takes me two weeks to stop pushing people out of the way in the cashier’s line,” he said. “I knew nothing about this rail-trail stuff, but it seemed like a worthwhile place to put my energy.
“It’s been uphill. I didn’t know about the funding mechanisms with strange acronyms like DOT and WWRC. I’m a lousy public speaker. I choke.”
But in a three years, he has tapped rail-trail experts, from historians to attorneys, to understand issues. He rips through the files on his Mac laptop with dizzying speed to produce railway documents, photos and even audio from Ferry County commission and committee meetings.
Whittaker seems to have considerable support for keeping the rail corridor non-motorized, especially among a large portion of the 180 or so adjacent landowners.
Beers said he’s skeptical about policing the rail corridor and future maintenance.
“But I can see that it’s going to be a trail of one kind or another, and if that’s the case, I definitely want it non-motorized,” he said.
“I own three ATVs and 23 acres. I can’t imagine why anyone in his right mind would want to ride an ATV on perfectly flat land.”
The Curlew Lake property owners group has elected to take no stand on the trail proposals. “We’ve decided to keep it an individual thing,” Beers said.
Cards filled out and recorded two and three years ago at the first two commission meetings indicated that attendees were about 90 percent in favor of non-motorized designation.
That early support was acknowledged by Commissioner Joe Bond, who asked the Ferry County Recreational Trails Committee to forget the first two years of discussions and “do what’s best for the people in this county.”
Bond didn’t respond to interview requests to define “what’s best.”
“I feel the county has missed an opportunity by making a committee just for rail trails instead of a county-wide trail committee,” Blankenship said.
Wakefield also thinks opportunities have been missed.
“The sad thing is that by dragging on, we’ve lost three years to plan,” he said. “We’re missing out on funding opportunities.”
For example, proponents of the Spokane-to-Cheney Fish Lake rail trail were able to secure $1 million in state funding plus $778,317 in federal economic stimulus funds for trail work to be done this summer.
Ferry County commissioners appointed a Recreational Trails Committee that’s been mired in haggling. The proceedings reached a low point on Tuesday when motorized representatives, who hold a majority, forced adjournment of a meeting before the group could discuss the topic of interim rules for the rail corridor.
“The commissioners were hoping the committee would give us some direction,” said Commissioner Heath. “I don’t see that happening. I was very disappointed. They had volunteered to help alleviate conflict and all they did is help escalate it.
“I think the commissioners have lost some credibility in all of this. At this point, I’m inclined to put the issue on the November ballot – motorized or non-motorized – and let the chips land where they may.”
Heath has gone on the record as favoring a non-motorized trail because of safety issues: “The route crosses the state highway and other county, town and private roads numerous times,” he said.
Motorized proponents emphasize that developing a OHV trail network in a region far from bigger population hubs might be a bigger boost to the economy than a non-motorized path.
But that overlooks the question of local tolerance for motor vehicles on a route that goes through many homeowners’ backyards.
“I don’t really need a survey to know that by far the majority of the adjacent landowners would prefer to have the rail land turned over to them,” Heath said. “That’s their first choice. Otherwise, the majority wants a non-motorized trail.”
A few ranchers and farmers would like to use the rail corridor for periodic movement of equipment and stock.
“I don’t see any problem with that,” Heath said. “We could have a simple permit system.”
Heath is only one of three commissioners, and the other two aren’t saying much publicly.
Meanwhile, county citizens of all persuasions appear to be looking for some sort of happy ending to their Ferry Trail.
Bobbi Weller, a respected long-time resident of the Curlew Lake area and chair of the Ferry County Recreational Trails Committee, has asked to be on the County Commission agenda Monday at 9 a.m. in Republic.
The next trails committee meeting, which is likely to entertain more forceful calls for action, is set for Thursday, 6:30 p.m., at the commission offices.