Last week, dual meetings in Tillamook and Banks formally launched a planning process to determine whether there is sufficient interest — and whether it is economically feasible — to create a hiking, biking and equestrian trail that would directly connect Banks with the Oregon coast.

The proposed trail would follow an existing railroad corridor between Banks and Tillamook by way of Manning, Timber, Wheeler and Rockaway Beach. Owned by the Port of Tillamook Bay, the rail line has been mostly out of service since severe storms hit the Coast Range in December 2007. Flooding and mudslides triggered washouts and slides, creating millions of dollars in damage to several sections of the 86-mile route.

With a caveat or two, we believe this trail is a wonderful idea.

The Salmonberry River canyon, which is about mid-way between Banks and the coast, is a unique and beautiful place, and the vision of being able to hike or bike from the Willamette Valley to the Pacific Ocean is highly appealing. The “Salmonberry Corridor” is a scenic jewel, and a trail could be a big tourist draw with potential to provide valuable economic and recreational benefits to the area. The nearby Banks-Vernonia State Trail, for instance, has become hugely popular, attracting 84,000 visitors in fiscal year 2012.

However, not everyone supports the concept. A significant number of citizens who attended the Sept. 12 meeting at the Banks Fire Station raised concerns that hunting might be restricted if there is a trail through this area of the Coast Range. Those who hunt there — many said they grew up doing so with their parents and grandparents — need to be assured that these valuable traditions would not be curtailed if a trail goes in.

While some basic safeguards would need to be put into place to ensure the safety of those using the trail, a trail should not mean “no hunting allowed.” Hunting rights in the corridor would need to be maintained without undue restrictions.

Another major issue is the disposition of the railroad that for many decades provided a key transportation link between Tillamook County and Washington County. As the planning process for a possible trail begins, there are two broad options being considered: “rail to trail,” where the tracks would be completely removed and replaced with a trail; and “rail with trail,” in which the rail infrastructure would remain in place with a trail sharing the right of way.

To keep options open for the future, we believe the latter choice would be the wisest course.

Some, including the editorial board of The Oregonian, have been all too eager to “pull the plug” on the railroad so the route can be turned into a trail. Indeed, in a Jan. 8, 2008, editorial — just a few weeks after the railroad was devastated by the 2007 storm — The Oregonian decided that the Port of Tillamook Bay’s damaged line between Hillsboro and Tillamook, which had served shippers in two counties for nearly 100 years, should be “given up on.”

“The old (railway) line should receive a final gift from Oregon: Death with dignity,” the editorial writers declared with stunning obtuseness. The editorial even acknowledged that then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski had asked a group of experts to study options for the corridor, including whether rail service to the lumber mills and agricultural facilities along the route should be preserved. Members of the task force were asked to come back with a set of recommendations in several months, but The Oregonian showed no interest in waiting for those recommendations — no matter how informative or thoughtful they might be: “You can have ours (recommendations) today,” the editorial dismissively sneered.

Deciding what should happen before a detailed review of all the factors involved is never a smart way to develop a rational policy. Business conditions can change, and while we strongly support the idea of a trail to the coast, we believe it would be short-sighted for the state to allow the removal of the rails between Banks and Tillamook to accommodate a trail.

Indeed, in recent months, Oregon has seen the reopening of a previously out-of-service rail line between Eugene and Coos Bay. And even now, there are lumber and agricultural shippers on the Banks to Tillamook route that would use the tracks to move their products to market if the line was still open.

Tracks and trails can coexist. As this project moves forward, planners would be wise to remember that and ensure the existing rail infrastructure in the Salmonberry Corridor is preserved.

Contract Publishing

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