Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – In a near-split vote, Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors has approved a letter in support of railbanking the moribund North Coast Railroad Authority rail line from Willits to Humboldt Bay.
The board’s close vote, taken at its May 11 meeting, reflects geographical differences and competition for use of the rail line.
The North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) is made up representatives of the counties along the line, which starts at the San Francisco Bay area. The authority’s board has unanimously voted to railbank the 75-mile section extending from Willits to Humboldt Bay.
Railbanking allows the rail corridor to be preserved and used for other purposes. The entire 320-mile NCRA line is mapped for a rail-to-trail path known as the Great Redwood Trail.
But Supervisor Rex Bohn noted the Timber Heritage Association’s goal of creating an excursion train around Humboldt Bay. Deputy Public Works Director Hank Seemann said that idea doesn’t fit into funding scenarios.
“Our constraints are that the money that we’re using is for active transportation,” he continued. “It can’t be used to develop infrastructure that’s not directly related to trails.”
Adding that “the reality is that there needs to be investment on the excursion train side,” Seemann estimated the cost of establishing an excursion train as “millions of dollars.”
A written staff report notes that the Humboldt Bay Trail from the Bracut Industrial Park to the Eureka Slough, which begins construction in 2022, is designed to be compatible with rail use and the Timber Heritage Association (THA) will be able to continue its speeder car rides.
Another railbanking dynamic is the split between the strong trail interests in and around Humboldt Bay and the property interests in the remote interior areas of the line through the Eel River Valley to Alderpoint.
The support letter reflects it, stating that “we expect that the near-term priority will be to develop trail segments linking cities and communities within the coastal region along Humboldt Bay, the Eel River Valley and the Mad River.”
The letter adds that “developing trails within the more remote interior region will likely be a longer-term enterprise that will require significant planning and consultation with adjacent landowners to address geological instability and compatibility with adjacent land use.”
Supervisor Michelle Bushnell’s district includes the remote Eel River Canyon area and she talked about how landowners there view the rail-to-trail prospect.
“I’ve had a lot of landowners reach out to me that haven’t been engaged and they are concerned for the health and welfare of their properties, and their cattle and so forth” she said. “If it were to go into a trail, it’s a really remote area out there with a lot of private lands.”
Seemann said that the letter’s written “to really make the point to make sure things go slow in the interior region for exactly the reasons you’re bringing up.”
During a public comment session, representatives of the Humboldt Trails Council and Friends of the Eel River supported the railbanking.
But a landowner who said she’s “on that nasty canyon that everybody keeps talking about” told supervisors that she’s considering legal options on nullifying the NCRA easements though her ranchland.
Supervisor Mike Wilson said preserving the easements through railbanking will allow a range of options for use of the rail corridor.
Supervisor Steve Madrone, the county’s NCRA representative, agreed.
He reiterated that if an inoperative rail line is legally abandoned, easements are extinguished while railbanking will preserve them.
Madrone noted that easements extend to Samoa, to the Blue Lake area Annie and Mary trail corridor and around Humboldt Bay.
“There are private easements that will revert if this does not get railbanked,” he said, adding, “If we don’t do that, we lose all of our options very, very quickly.”
Board Chair Virginia Bass considered the THA’s concerns and said she’s “really not thrilled with this” but she joined Wilson and Madrone in supporting the letter, making for a 3 to 2 approval vote.
The letter was sent to the NCRA and is included in the agency’s federal railbanking application, which was submitted late last week.