A decade-long rail-to-trail project in Ferry County was derailed this week.
On Monday, the Ferry County Commissioners removed Bobbi Weller and Jennine Groth from the county’s Rail Corridor Committee. The move is the most recent in a year-long series of obscuration and resistance, supporters of the project say.
The RCC is a citizen advisory group tasked with communicating between the county, public and various other agencies providing funding for the 25-miles of nonmotorized trail connecting the towns of Republic and Danville.
“It was a tipping point. A line in the sand,” said Keith Bell, the trail’s project manager. “For the past year, we’ve had an enormous amount of resistance from the commissioners.”
Ferry County Commission chairwoman Johnna Exner said all the commission is doing is looking at the big picture and trying to do “what’s best for the county fiscally.” As for removing Weller and Groth from the RCC, she thanked them for their service but said other community members wanted to be involved.
“Other members of the community expressed their interest in being allowed the opportunity to serve on the RCC board and to build the trail,” she said in an email. “The board of county commissioners felt the change in the RCC would be a benefit to the RCC and the Ferry County.”
For at least a decade Ferry county residents, including Weller, have worked to turn an old rail road line into a nonmotorized trail system. The project has received numerous state and private grants. But the commissioners have held up the completion of the project in various large and small ways, Bell said.
In addition to removing Weller and Groth the commissioners have yet to approve a $165,000 Recreation and Conservation Grant approved by the state and funded by the Legislature. The only thing preventing the money from being used is the commissioners approval, Bell said.
More recently, the commissioners have proposed changing the scope of the project to include a sturdier bridge, one that would allow emergency vehicles to travel near Lone Ranch road. Weller fears much of the grant money could be used up building that bridge, which she believes is unnecessary.
“The commissioners are kicking the can down the road,” Bell said.
Bobby Whittaker, the godfather of the project and president of the Ferry County Rail Trail Partners added, “That’s a red herring. That’s smoke.”
Exner said changing the scope of the project to include a bridge is necessary in case of an accident or natural disaster and a matter of liability for the county. The bridge would also make long-term trail maintenance and access easier, she said.
“This is something that the county has to take into account for public safety and welfare,” she said.
She refuted claims that the commission was stalling the project, instead saying they are simply doing their due diligence as elected officials and stewards of public money. Exner said she’s only heard positive feedback on the commissions approach.
“The Rail Trail project has been ongoing both in development and discussion,” she said in the email. “The people that I have spoken to are pleased that the commissioners are taking time to study the opportunities as well as the obligations that are involved within the grant project.”
Supporters of the trail see it differently and point to past precedent to bolster their case.
In 2017, the commission proposed dissolving the Rail Corridor Committee. Public outcry halted that effort. Less than a year ago, the commission removed Whittaker.
“All of those people (the replacements) are planning commissioner allies and friends,” Bell said.
Whittaker, the president of the Ferry County Rail Trail Partners, a nonprofit group that helped broker the deal to assume the abandoned railway in 2008, said removing Weller and Groth is just one more offense in a long series of them.
The trail, although located in Ferry County, would benefit people all over the Northwest.
“It’s an amazing recreational asset for locals and tourists alike. No matter what tax bracket you are in, it’s free, no ticket or parking pass required,” he said in an email. “What the commissioners have been doing is undemocratic and that is something that no American should be OK with.”
The RCO grant holdup is particularly egregious, he said.
“These things are huge,” he said of the RCO grant. “This is like Ferry County won the lottery and the commissioners just burned the winning ticket.”
But, Exner pointed out that the rail right of way is under county control and liability. While developing the trail the county has certain obligations including “any repair of the developed trail, weed spraying, insurance and the requirement to pay back the grant(s) in case of non-compliance with the grant contract.”
She added, “It is county liability and we don’t have a lot of money in our county.”
The rail-to-trail project has benefited from widespread community and regional support. In 2009, residents in a county advisory ballot voted 61 percent to allow only nonmotorized use of the abandoned railway.
Although Bell, Whittaker and others worry that by changing the project’s scope the commissioners will open the trail up to motorized vehicles, Exner said that was not the case.
“It’s a 25-mile nonmotorized trail and that’s not going to change,” she said.
The rail-to-trail partnership has been successful, securing a $200,000 federal transportation enhancement grant to put a deck on the trestle across the north end of Curlew Lake. That was followed by two state grants totaling $270,000 for resurfacing 13 miles of the trail and installing two vault toilets, said Bell, a retired mining company geologist.
Part of the group’s success has been its ability to recruit allies from vastly different ideological and political backgrounds. Weller, who owns land adjacent to the trail way, said she was adamantly against the project initially. But after talking to Whittaker, she was convinced it would be a good thing for Ferry County, one of the state’s poorest counties.
Weller said she isn’t surprised she was removed from the RCC because she’s “had disagreements with the commissioners.”
Despite the setbacks, she remains hopeful the trail project will move forward.
“We seem to be at a standstill, but like I said, I’m always hopeful that things can work out,” she said. “This trail is very important to Ferry County … because it brings tourist dollars in and right now Ferry County needs that.”