For more than 30 years, Washington’s John Wayne Trail has offered adventurous bikers and horseback riders a unique opportunity to traverse the state on the former Milwaukee Railroad route. But the future of its eastern 135 miles is uncertain.
A now-on-hold proposal from two Eastern Washington lawmakers to close the section of the trail east of the Columbia River surprised many to the west in Kittitas County who appreciate the trail and the tourism it brings.
“Here, it’s a resource; I don’t think many people could envision losing what we have,” said Jim Armstrong, CEO of the Kittitas County Chamber of Commerce. “I use it probably twice a week myself and you always run into somebody on the trail. It has beneficial impacts on tourism and definitely on quality of life.”
But across the river, some say it’s a very different story.
The entire 250-mile trail is managed as part of Iron Horse State Park, but the remote, rural and largely unimproved section of the trail east of the Columbia River is not as popular as the Kittitas County section. Neighboring landowners also say the state is failing to deal with weeds and address issues of trespassing and dumping.
Although a proposal included in the 2015 capital budget that would have given the eastern half of the trail to its adjacent landowners and close public access was not enacted due to a typo, one of the sponsors says he’s still seeking a solution to problems faced by the trail’s neighbors.
“Where it’s been fixed up and it’s nice, it’s a tremendous asset. But on the other side of the water, it’s been 35 years and really nothing’s been done,” said Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax. “It gets limited use and the landowners want the land back. I was just trying to find a solution.”
But after outcry from trail user groups and small communities along the trail erupted when the budget measure come to light in September, Schmick committed to work with a group of landowners, trail users and state park representatives before renewing efforts to close the trail.
He agreed to working with a committee at a public meeting last week in the small city of Tekoa, where the trail ends near the Idaho border. The City Council had voted to condemn the legislation to close the trail without consulting with the community.
Nikki Fields, the trails coordinator for Washington State Parks, said she’s looking forward to working with the committee to find solutions that also protect public access to the long-planned trail.
The trail is built atop the former Milwaukee Railroad bed, which the state acquired after the railroad abandoned it in bankruptcy in 1980. Since that time, a roughly 100-mile stretch from near North Bend to the Columbia River has been developed and gets regular, and in places, heavy use. However, efforts to develop the trail east of the Columbia River have languished.
“We’ve been working toward the goal of a cross-state trail since at least the mid-1980s,” Fields said. “We’ve only been managing the eastern section since 2006 and we haven’t done any major capital improvements yet, but we’re working on it. We believe that once it is improved like (the section in Kittitas County) is, it will be used more.”
The State Parks took over management of the eastern trail from the Department of Natural Resources nine years ago.
Fields said more designated trailheads with bathrooms and water would probably deter recreational users from trespassing.
Ted Blaszak, member of the Tekoa City Council and president of the Tekoa Trestle and Trail Association, has called on lawmakers to invest in the trail rather than abandoning it.
“There’s so much opportunity, at not great expense, to make it much more user friendly,” Blaszak said.
One group already using the eastern section regularly is the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Rider Association, which organizes an annual horseback ride that traverses the entire trail, from North Bend to the Idaho border.
“It’s beautiful, it’s breathtaking. I live in Ellensburg but I think the most beautiful part is from the Columbia River to Idaho. And they want to give that away?” said club president Darlene Brady.
“This trail belongs to the state of Washington and the only thing that saved us is a typo that said ‘from the Columbia River to the Columbia River.’”
The riders association, which has more than 200 members, donates thousands of dollars and volunteer hours to the trail every year, Brady said. She said she’s optimistic that this controversy could bring more awareness to the trail and hopefully more state investment on the eastern side.
Walt Farrar, an Ellensburg resident and frequent trail rider, said he’s never seen dumping or trespassing and that communities along the trail welcome the annual ride because participants go out to dinner and shop in the towns whenever they have the chance.
“You see a lot of different towns most people have never heard of,” he said. “They have fundraisers when we come through and we help out all the way around.”
Farrar said the budget proposal seemed like an “underhanded way” to make a decision about the trail without public input.
Fields said that while she couldn’t speak for everyone in the agency, the budget proposal was also a surprise to her.
Allegations that the measure lacked transparency are becoming a political problem for the proposal’s other sponsor, Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy. Her opponent in the upcoming special election called it a betrayal of trust for 9th District residents.
“(The trail cut was approved) with no public input, no knowledge to the public that it was going to happen,” said former Franklin County Sheriff Richard Lathim. “The other side never even knew it was taking place. ... I think the issue is, where’s the representation to the people?”
Schmick said the budget provision was not intentionally kept quiet.
“It was in the Senate capital budget for everyone to look at,” he said.
The provision also would have closed the Columbia Plateau State Park Trail from Cheney to Pasco. Schmick clarified that while the trail land would have been handed over to the local landowners, the state would have retained the right-of-ways so a trail could be re-established if there was a plan to invest in improvements and maintenance.
“It’s kind of a moot point now, since we’re going to move ahead with this committee,” he said. “You can tell people that the trail is still open, but the issues that are out there are real.”
Brady said the reasons to protect it are real, and the riders club and other trail advocates are gearing up to defend the trail they love.
“This trail is our mission, we’re not going to take this sitting down. We have people come from all over the nation with their horses and wagons to ride this trail with us,” she said. “We’re gathering the troops, mounted of course.”