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Rails project could link Columbia County to coast

Rugged Salmonberry Corridor extends county's reach and is a lure for outdoor enthusiasts


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - A bridge spans the Salmonberry River not far from the confluence with the Nehalem River. The rail line, which has not been in use since it suffered extensive damage in the storm of December 2007, is being eyed for trail development. A railway line that once advertised it could bring passengers within one block of the Pacific Ocean for day trips may get a second life guiding visitors from Banks to Tillamook in a completely different way by becoming a trail.

Rails-to-trails projects, which convert unused sections of rail line into trails for hikers, cyclists and equestrians, have occurred across the country. And, in many cases, the projects have been an economic boon to nearby communities, drawing outdoor enthusiasts from near and far.

The proposed Salmonberry Corridor trail would use an 84-mile rail corridor completed in 1911 that once connected the Willamette Valley to the Oregon Coast. A trail established in this corridor has the potential to connect Columbia County to the coast.

The trail, running between Tillamook and Banks, would link to the existing Banks-Vernonia State Trail, which bridges the gap between Banks and Vernonia. From there, it’s not far to Columbia County’s own rails-to-trails project, the Crown Zellerbach Trail, which was built along an abandoned logging road and railway line. That 17-mile trail stretches from Vernonia to Scappoose.

“It’s all going to be one big super structure when it’s done,” said Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde.

Like the Banks-Vernonia Trail, the CZ Trail draws many local users, walkers and cyclists who travel it daily as a way to get outside and exercise. The longer, more arduous treks, however, are usually attempted by out-of-town visitors, tourists looking for an adventure.

The Salmonberry Corridor’s Port of Tillamook Railroad line suffered extensive damage in a December 2007 storm. It has not been used since except for a segment near the coast where the Oregon Coast Scenic Railway runs regular tours and excursions up the line.

With no real interest in maintaining the full railway line, implementing a trail means the path the line has carved out won’t be wasted, said Michele Bradley, general manager of the Port of Tillamook Bay which purchased the line in 1990.

Nicknamed “punk, rotten and nasty,” the Port of Tillamook Railroad line was ambitious from the start, navigating unusually steep grades and requiring swooping trestles. It travels through a beautiful, diverse and rugged landscape, offering stunning views of the Salmonberry River below, but has been difficult and expensive to maintain, Bradley said.

“We’ve got tunnels, we’ve got trestles, and it’s a 100-year-old railroad,” she said.

Trail planning for the Salmonberry Corridor has been in the works for years, but has moved slowly. A feasibility study was only just completed in March and a proposed master plan will likely be published in June. Final planning and implementation, however, could take years, if not decades.

MG Devereux, a project manager for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, however, is optimistic. The Banks-Vernonia Trail, he points out, took more than 30 years to complete.

“While there are certainly some challenges, they can be overcome,” he said.

Portland resident Jim Thayer has been involved with the corridor plans for the last four years, but has been hiking the area for much longer. The Salmonberry Corridor is lovely and secluded, he said — in his many hikes, he has rarely run in to another person — but it continues to live up to its nickname.

Thayer ranks it among one of the more difficult areas to hike, especially when there are no established trails to rely on, only the railroad. Even along the relatively flat and easy stretch of railway line near the confluence of the Salmonberry and Nehalem rivers, walking can still be difficult. Quick-growing alder and other plants tangle with the railroad ties.

For more information, visit salmonberrycorridor.wordpress.com