Well, pilgrim, we’ve got ourselves a bit of trouble in this here town of Tekoa. A part of the John Wayne Trail might be closed and some folks hereabouts are pretty riled up.
That may be how the cross-state trail’s namesake would describe a controversy in Tekoa, where local officials recently learned the state might abandon a section of the trail from the Columbia River to Malden. Tekoa Mayor John Jaeger said the plan came as a complete surprise and the City Council passed a resolution this week to send a message of “Whoa!” to a chief supporter of the closure, Rep. Joe Schmick.
“Why weren’t we involved?” Jaeger asked.
Councilman Ted Blaszak, who is also the president of the Tekoa Trestle and Trail Association, has more pointed fighting words. The planned closure is “a blatant land grab … nothing less than public thievery,” he said in a news release that says an emergency town meeting has been called for 6 p.m. Monday in City Hall.
At least it’s not at high noon, on Main Street.
Schmick, R-Colfax, said Friday the closure is on hold for the time being, although not because of community resistance. The 2015-17 capital budget called for the state to transfer ownership of part of the trail to adjacent landowners “to improve noxious weed control and achieve improved land stewardship and wild fire response.” But the geographical description in the statute is wrong, he said, and it would have to be corrected in next year’s session if there’s a supplemental capital budget, or in some future session.
“I’d rather put our assets into parts of the trail that are being used,” Schmick said.
It’s a dispute the Duke himself might have understood, pitting townspeople against ranchers and farmers, although whom he sided with might have depended on whether Howard Hawks or John Ford directed the movie.
Ever since the cross-state trail was proposed for the bed of the old Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (commonly known as the Milwaukee Road), landowners along the route were worried about people veering off the trail, trespassing and possibly vandalizing their property. Under the current language in the recent budget statute, adjacent landowners would take possession, but the state would always keep an easement and could re-establish the trail later.
Virginia Painter of the Parks and Recreation Commission said that language is under review by the agency and there are no plans to abandon any part of the trail. One of the things under review is whether the landowners have any claim on the land the railroad abandoned.
Some parts of the trail are heavily used by hikers, bicyclists and equestrians, and they are well-maintained, Schmick said. Everything west of the Columbia River, plus the stretch from the Whitman County town of Malden to Tekoa, would stay open. But he insisted the stretch from the Columbia east to Malden is not well-used. That stretch across the Columbia Plateau has no services or water, and lots of rattlesnakes but very few hikers. Weeds grow along the trail, spreading seeds and fueling fires, and some of the trestles aren’t safe, he said.
His seatmate, Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, said the state has limited resources, and the upkeep of trails can be expensive. The Chipman Trail from Washington State University to the University of Idaho costs about $5,000 per mile annually to maintain, and the funds are raised by the two universities and local governments.
The city of Tekoa also wants the state’s help in restoring a trestle on the trail just outside of town, Dye said, but there isn’t money for everything everyone wants to do: “What do we give up?”
Jaeger and other Tekoa officials, however, say their legislators aren’t looking at what the John Wayne Trail could be: a destination for runners, hikers and bikers crossing Washington and connecting with trails just across the Idaho state line that continue into Montana. Instead of abandoning that section of the trail, the state should enhance regional tourism and boost local economies by making it more user friendly, Blaszak said.
Tekoa officials will be talking with leaders of other cities along the trail in an effort to fight the closure, Jaeger said. The Tekoa council resolution is requesting a meeting with Schmick, and the legislator said he’s happy to talk with them about it. But the message he’ll have for them is “if you want to keep this open, think outside the box.”