Planners consider developing route from Banks to Tillamook

About 100 people crowded into the Banks Fire Station last Thursday to comment on whether to turn the Port of Tillamook Bay railroad corridor into an 86-mile recreational trail linking Banks and Tillamook.

Planners made clear at the meeting, which was hosted by Oregon State Parks & Recreation Department, that there are currently more questions than answers, and that more meetings would follow.

“Nothing is decided yet. We are looking for input,”said Tim Wood, director of Oregon State Parks.

The railroad corridor starts in Banks, crosses the Coast Range, winds through the highly scenic Salmonberry River canyon, reaches the coast at Wheeler and continues on to Tillamook. Portions of the roadbed were severely damaged in a December 2007 storm that washed out sections of the track.

With repairs estimated to cost roughly $26 million, the owner of the railroad — the Port of Tillamook Bay — was unable to come up with sufficient funds to rebuild the line. The route, which extends across parts of two counties — Washington and Tillamook — has remained out of service ever since.

Before the storm, the railroad hauled lumber and agricultural products between Tillamook and Hillsboro.

Rather than allow the corridor to continue to languish, recreationalists, state officials and others have begun considering turning it into a hiking, biking and equestrian trail linking Banks with the coast.

“The Salmonberry canyon is a fantastic place,” said Rocky Houston, state trails coordinator for Oregon State Parks. “It is a beautiful, idyllic place worth visiting.”

Michele Bradley, general manager of the Port of Tillamook Bay, pointed out that development of the corridor could take as long as a decade.

But many at the meeting opposed such development. They worried a trail would limit or prohibit hunting in the vicinity. Others pointed out that it would take a lot of tax dollars to build a trail into the inaccessible, slide-prone area. Another concern was the impact of bringing more people into the corridor who might leave trash behind.

Proponents of the idea cited the health and environmental benefits of the proposed trail, as well as the potential economic boost for the area by attracting more tourists and recreationalists.

Len Punzel, owner of Banks Bicycle Repair & Rental, pointed out that there was also opposition when the Banks-Vernonia Trail was being planned, but the trail is now widely regarded as a success story.

“There was a lot of flap about finally putting a trail in Banks, but now people come from all over, and love it,” said Punzel.

The route of the trackage — which opened in 1911 and for most of its history was owned by Southern Pacific Railroad — runs through several cities, including Banks, Manning, Timber, Cochran, Wheeler, Rockaway Beach, Garibaldi and Tillamook.

One key question is whether the tracks would be removed to make way for a trail or would a trail run alongside the existing railroad roadbed.

Currently, a tourist train operation known as the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad (OCSR) holds a five-year lease to the trackage between Tillamook and Enright, a distance of about 48 miles or roughly half of the proposed 86-mile trail corridor.

OCSR already operates from Garibaldi to Wheeler, and plans to continue and perhaps expand its passenger excursions in years to come.

Houston explained that because there is an existing state trail from Banks to Manning (the Banks-Vernonia State Trail), it would be most logical to start the new trail at Manning. There’s room for a trailhead in an empty lot next to the tracks and adjacent to the intersection of Highway 26 and Pihl Road, he said.

The meeting raised some important issues, Washington County Commission Chairman Andy Duyck said afterward.

“The big one seemed to be about hunting rights,” Duyck said. “I tend to agree that this project should not limit hunting, any more than a public road right of way does. It is illegal to hunt from, or shoot across, a public road.”

Duyck said a trail could provide a solution to ongoing safety concerns regarding bikes using the highways from Washington County to the coast.

“Many of the complaints about cyclists on roads could be reduced by creating safe places such as this trail to cycle,” Duyck said.

Organizers of the planning effort anticipate having a draft of a master plan for a possible trail in the corridor by September 2014.

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