The Duke of Washington’s state trails is standing taller on the State Parks and Recreation Commission agenda this year after nearly being snuffed out by the Legislature in 2015.
The John Wayne Pioneer Trail – the eastern portion of a cross-state abandoned Milwaukee railway purchased by the state in 1981 – is on track for a state park strategic plan.
An advisory committee representing landowners and trail advocates was appointed in December to aid the state in planning development of the trail and addressing issues.
The route is the longest rail-trail conversion in the United States.
Major issues include replacing damaged trestles, linking gaps, controlling weeds, sanitation, regulating authorized use, trespassing on adjacent land and satisfying adjacent landowners who contend the trail is an infringement on their private property rights.
Interest in the trail was revived last year after Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, attempted to close a 130-mile portion of the trail as well as the Columbia Plateau rail trail and give control of the corridor to adjacent landowners. A last-minute provision was added to the state’s capital budget without public announcement or input.
A technical error in the language negated the action that would have closed the John Wayne Trail from the Columbia River east to Malden.
Trail advocates led by the Tekoa Trestle and Trail Association organized public meetings in Rosalia, Lind and Ellensburg, attended by Schmick and state Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
The meetings provided a laundry list of what the public likes and dislikes about the trail. Some advocates pointed out that the trail is a 6,000-acre linear park that was a one-time opportunity to acquire and a gem for the future.
“Sen. Schoesler and I have been contacted for years by property owners over the fact that Parks, DNR and the Department of Transportation – the three state entities involved in the trail – don’t do anything. There’s no upkeep,” Schmick said explaining his 2015 legislative move.
“There are noxious weeds, no fences and the biggest problem is trespassing. We offered a compromise that would keep the land and trail but allow property owners to manage the ground as it should be. When possible, it could be opened up as a recreation trail.
“Our intent was never to give land back to property owners. It was to let them take care of it.”
But when the issue was exposed to the public, Schmick and Schoesler heard a wider range of comments.
Fourteen towns have passed city resolutions asking the state Legislature to fund the trail rather than close it, including Spokane, Cheney, Tekoa, Rosalia, Lind, Palouse, Colfax, Pullman, Cle Elum, Royal City, Rockford, Latah, Ellensburg and Roslyn.
No legislation is pending that would affect the trail in the 2016 Washington Legislature, Schmick said Tuesday. “It would seem premature to offer any legislation until the State Parks Department evaluating process has run its course,” he said.
The advisory committee, with members ranging from Tekoa to Seattle, convened on Dec. 15 and will meet again on Monday.
“Our goal is to identify problems and find compromises and solutions,” said Randy Kline, a planner for Washington State Parks and Recreation.
Public workshops are being planned in Cheney and Ellensburg, probably in March, he said, noting that the state is trying to catch up on lost time. Parks officials hope to have action proposals ready for the Parks and Recreation Commission July meeting in Clarkston.
The trail had been under almost dormant jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources until the Legislature gave majority control to State Parks in 2006. No funding for trail work was in the legislation.
“Then in 2008, we found ourselves in the middle of the Great Recession and State Parks was struggling just to redefine itself,” Kline said. “During that difficult time, the funding just wasn’t there.”
Grant applications have been filed and some funding is coming through for trail projects, he said.
A master plan was completed for the trail from Malden to the Idaho border in 2013.
“There’s plenty of work to do,” he said.
Trail users have complained that the permit system required by the legislature in the 1980s eliminates spontaneous use of short sections of the trail and makes lawbreakers out of families who are using the route for short walks or rides from their rural towns or farms.
“Moms and dads with their kids, Boy Scouts and cyclists, horse riders and grandpas, a lot of good people would use that trail if you didn’t make it harder for them,” said Ted Blaszak of the Tekoa Trail and Trestle Association.
Confusion over the permits is widespread among users and landowners.
A map used by State Parks to help users indicates stretches of deeded private land where parties that obtain permits are allowed to pass.
“One of the advantages of the permit is that we know when somebody’s on the trail for overnight trips and we can communicate safety information and alert landowners,” Kline said. “That’s not to say there’s not a better way to do it. We’ll be exploring that through the process.”
But a Whitman County farmer said he’s never been notified even though his family holds the deed for about a mile of the railway near SR 23 that his father bought from the Milwaukee before the state purchased the majority of the corridor.
Todd Dickerson said the only trail users that have contacted him for permission to trespass are members of the John Wayne Trail Riders, who organize an annual spring horse and wagon tour across the state.
“I want them to ask every year and they’re very good about it,” Dickerson said. “But I’ve never heard anything from State Parks about permission for other users.
“Parks people keep taking my locks off my gate and putting their locks on it. I usually take their locks off during spring because they have way too many people knowing the combination to it.”
Kline said a State Parks strategic plan likely would address trail issues and development in segments.
The section from the Columbia River to Royal City Junction remains under jurisdiction of DNR, he said.
From Royal City Junction to Warden is active rail line and off limits.
The railway from Warden to Lind also is still managed by DNR.
“We are doing our planning for Vantage to the Idaho border and state parks could eventually assume management of the DNR sections,” Kline said, noting that State Parks formally manages the route from Lind 105 miles to the Idaho border.
“One of the complexities of dealing with any sort of rail corridor is sorting out the deeds and ownerships.
“Planning and development won’t happen quickly. It will take years. But as we formalize the plan we open the door to getting more grant funding and making more progress.”