Planners consider developing route from Banks to Tillamook

Creation of a potential new trail linking Banks with Tillamook has now officially entered the planning process. On the evening of Sept. 12, approximately 100 residents crowded into the Banks Fire Station meeting room to offer their views for and against the HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Most of the once-busy railroad corridor west of Banks is now overgrown with vegetation. The route between Banks and Tillamook has been out of service since December 2007.

Under consideration is how and whether to turn a largely unused railroad corridor between Banks and Tillamook into an 86-mile recreational trail similar to the adjacent Banks-Vernonia State Trail.

Planners made clear at the beginning of the meeting, which was hosted by Oregon State Parks & Recreation Department (OSP), that there were more questions than answers at this stage of the HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - A map on display at last weeks public meeting in Banks shows part of the existing railroad right of way that could become a scenic trail linking Banks with the Oregon coast.

“This is the first of a lot of public meetings on whether to develop the old Port of Tillamook Bay Railroad between Banks and Tillamook into a trail for a multitude of purposes. We’ve concluded it (the corridor) is worth taking a hard look at as a hiking, biking and equestrian trail,” said Tim Wood, director of OSP. “Nothing is decided at this point. We are looking for input.”

The railroad corridor originates 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, a group of recreationalists, state officials and other interested stakeholders has begun considering turning the former railroad route into a trail linking Banks with the coast.

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

Michele Bradley, general manager of the Port of Tillamook Bay, pointed out that development of the railroad corridor as a trail would be a lengthy process, possibly taking a decade or more to go from vision to reality.

“The line was severely damaged in 2007, and here we are in 2013 just now talking about making use of that corridor,” Bradley said.

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.

Houston pointed out that because there is an existing trail from Banks to Manning (the Banks-Vernonia State Trail), there would be no reason to develop a parallel trail between those two towns.

“It seems logical to us to start the new trail at Manning,” Houston said, adding that there is room for a trailhead in an empty lot next to the tracks and adjacent to the intersection of Highway 26 and Pihl Road.

One key question is whether the tracks would be removed to make way for a trail or 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 — 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.

State Sen. Betsy Johnson (D- Scappoose), whose district includes Banks and other portions of the trail, said keeping the tracks in place is essential.

"It's imperative that it be 'rail with trail' in my view, recognizing the historic railroad on the beach has been a very important tourist draw," Johnson said.

However, a sizeable portion of those in attendance did not like the idea of creating a public trail into the area. During the two-hour meeting, many said they worried that having a trail there would limit or prohibit hunting in the vicinity.

Johnson said hunting rights would need to be maintainted as part of the package.

"I support hunting in that area. That is a part of Oregon's heritage," she explained.

Opponents also pointed out that it would take a lot of tax dollars to build a trail into the inaccessible, slide-prone area, and 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.

After the meeting, Washington County Commission Chairman Andy Duyck said he thought the meeting raised some important issues.

"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 pointed out that 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.

Johnson said she is a strong supporter of the concept of the trail.

"The ability to build a network of trails could make us a national — if not an international — destination," Johnson 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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