Go slow on the John Wayne Trail.
A legislative bid this spring to have the state of Washington abandon ownership of the former Milwaukee Road track bed from Malden west to the Columbia River was hasty and ill-advised.
The Eastern Washington leg of the John Wayne may be lightly traveled compared with the stretch across the Columbia, but that is not reason enough to discard what could eventually become a much-needed asset for the communities along the route.
Biking, hiking and horseback riding on other former railroad rights-of-way have become major contributors to the economies of small towns. In North Idaho, for example, the Route of the Hiawatha and Trail of the Coeur d’Alene, both following old railroad routes, are seasonal silver mines for towns from Wallace to Harrison.
Trails in Western Washington, including the John Wayne, are having the same effect in communities like Cle Elum.
An economic analysis of outdoor recreation released in January estimated biking alone generates more than $3 billion in benefits to Washington. Most of that is not equipment sales, but dollars spent on dining, accommodations and related expenses.
Tekoa officials have recognized the John Wayne’s potential value. They helped form a Tekoa Trestle and Trail Association that has advocated for improvements, particularly repairs to a 975-foot steel trestle outside of town.
There’s also a John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders Association − and wouldn’t the actor famous for his cowboy roles love to saddle up with those folks − that holds an annual ride from Tekoa to North Bend.
Clearly, there is an affection for the trail for what it was and is, and could be.
But what neighboring landowners see is vandalism, trash, and a right-of-way for every weed infiltrating their farms and ranches. Should the state abandon its ownership, the property might become theirs, depending on individual deeds.
It was on the landowners’ behalf that Rep. Joe Schmick tried to hitch abandonment to the state’s capital budget. But for sloppy wording, he might have succeeded.
In a packed Wednesday morning meeting in Tekoa, he agreed that a better solution might come from putting together communities, landowners and recreationalists who could have a proposal ready for the 2017 Legislature — next year is not a budget year.
Many of the problems identified by the landowners could be resolved simply by getting more riders and walkers out on the trail observing and self-policing. More access and facilities, and better promotional efforts by the state, communities and recreation groups can generate more interest.
The John Wayne is the longest cross-state recreation connection, but who knows that? Selectively abandoning segments because there are user problems not only blocks local use, but diminishes the value of the whole 300-mile route and dims Washington’s growing reputation as a bicycling mecca.
We see no reason to hurry.
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