About 50 civic and government leaders met in Scotia last Tuesday night to support a new plan to convert a long stretch of the Northwest Pacific Railroad, from Willits north nearly to Eureka, into a non-motorized trail way that would preserve the option to restore a motorized transit system should one ever prove feasible.
The roughly 150-mile stretch in question would address the missing link in a region-wide effort to make some use of decaying railways as bike, hike and horse paths.
Launched in December, the Eel River Trails Association, the group behind this latest effort, is so new that it is borrowing another organization's non-profit aegis in order to receive tax-deductible contributions while it gets its own paperwork in order.
But with an eagerness and energy that has so far compensated for any lack of political experience, the new group's founder, Southern Humboldt landowner Chris Weston, drew an impressive coalition to the group's kickoff event. Attendees included Ferndale Mayor Jeff Farley, Humboldt County Fair staffer Susan Combes and former Humboldt County Public Works director John Murray, who is involved with a similar rail-to-trail conversion already underway in the six-plus mile-long Annie & Mary stretch, from the edge of Arcata east to Blue Lake.
As more than 20 speakers briefly explained their reasons for supporting the Eel River Trails effort, it quickly became evident why when Murray updated the gathering on the Annie & Mary project, which is already pretty far along in the approval process but is still bogged down in myriad details.
As Murray explained, the 1983 law that allowed the conversion of railways into trailways was written in order to preserve the right of way. So that even if a rail line wasn't feasible at a certain point in time, and communities elected to make hike, bike and/or horse trails, the continuous land would still exist to recreate a people-moving conveyance of the sort that used to be called a railroad.
So Arcata Mayor Susan Ornelas - whose city is working on its own 4.2 rail-to-trail conversion project - was on hand to support Weston because the entire railroad corridor -- from just beyond Blue Lake south to Larkspur in Marin County - must end up with some rail or trail designation in order to satisfy the intent of the law.
There are three other short rail-to-trail projects between the Annie & Mary section and the new Eel River Trail component. They also ultimately depend on whether the new volunteer group from Southern Humboldt can push the rail-to-trail conversion process through the toughest portion of the original tracks.
In the audience at last Tuesday's event was Humboldt native David Doolaege, a Scotia businessman who supported the trail conversion. He said timber would never again drive the rails. And the right of way would make a perfect trail for urban bicyclists who will spend thousands for hot wheels and great rides.
"People don't want to come up here to fish, they want to come up here to bike," Doolaege said.
While none of the participants at last Tuesday's meeting expressed any interest in the revival of old-fashioned locomotives, Arcata Mayor Susan Ornelas reminded the assembly that the trail conversion process would still preserve the option to recreate a 21st Century version of the steam engine if necessary and practical.
"As we start running out of gas we may need to reinvent our transportation system, as happened in the early 19th Century, and then we'll be all about rail," she said, speaking for herself rather than the city.
Meanwhile, the Eel River Trails group hopes to inch ahead, against long odds, but with considerable support. "This Chris Weston fellow has really come along at a great time," said Ferndale's Mayor Farley.