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Cowlitz County is not quitting its effort to turn the old Weyerhaeuser Woods Railroad into a rails-to-trails project.

The county has asked the U.S. Department of Transportation not to act on Patriot Railroad’s Aug. 23 request to withdraw from a 2017 agreement to “rail bank” the 21.5-mile stretch of tracks from Ostrander to Toutle for use as a public trail, County Commissioner Dennis Weber said last week.

Late last month, Patriot notified Transportation’s Surface Transportation Board that it was ending negotiations with the county and asked it to “vacate” — or nullify — the 2017 agreement.

Patriot still is willing to work with the county to convert the old Columbia & Cowlitz Railroad into a rails-to-trails project, said Lou Gitomer, a Maryland-based contract attorney for Patriot. That rail line, from the former Weyerhaeuser mill site in Longview to North Kelso, includes the bridge over the Cowlitz River and trestle through North Kelso and Cowlitz Gardens.

Patriot bought the old Woods Railroad and Columbia & Cowlitz rail lines in 2010. Patriot stopped using the lines several years ago and wants to formally abandon them, Gitomer told TDN.

“There’s been no traffic on the lines for years. (Patriot) doesn’t foresee any traffic in the future, and this is an asset they don’t need to continue to carry because it is not producing any revenue,” Gitomer said.

Abandoning a railroad line, though, isn’t an easy or legally simple matter.

Abandonment requires extensive reviews for historically significant places and artifacts; assessment and possible cleanup of ecological damage; and removal of tracks, buildings, grade crossings and other railroad gear. To avoid some of these costs, federal regulations allow railroads to “bank” the line and allow the rail corridors to be used for trails or other public uses. Under these rules, a railroad line is not technically abandoned — even if it has no tracks or never sees a train again.

This gives the railroad or the landowner a big incentive to convert rail corridors into public trails, Commissioners Weber said.

In Patriot’s case, though, Weyerhaeuser retained ownership of the land on the Ostrander-to-Toutle corridor, having leased it to Patriot for eight years. Weyerhaeuser has stated it opposes a rails-to-trails project there for safety reasons related to logging operations.

“It’s just not compatible with having a trail against those timberlands,” company spokesman Anthony Chavez told The Daily News last year.

Weyerhaeuser’s opposition is apparently why Patriot has tried to back down from the effort.

But the situation is apparently even more complex. For one thing, Weyerhaeuser does not own all the land under the Ostrander-to-Toutle tracks. Darcy Mitchem, a bicyling advocate and member of the county’s rails-to-trails committee, said in some cases the company acquired easements, but not title, to at least several large parcels on which it built the railroad decades ago.

Other complications are that Patriot’s sales agreement with Weyerhaeuser is 800 pages long and is a private document, so no one knows for sure what Patriot’s obligations and commitments are to Weyerhaeuser, Mitchem said.

Advocates of the trail project see it as a possible step for creating a trail from Longview to Mount St. Helens and to link it with other trails under development in the county. Many old, abandoned rail lines across the county have been converted into foot and biking paths.

The trails committee would like to speak with Weyerhaeuser about the issue and discuss the advantages to the company of turning the old line into a trail, Mitchem said. But they’ve had difficulty establishing a connection.

“We have only heard through the grapevine. They keep changing staff. We’d like to explore (with the company) how this would benefit Weyerhaeuser,” Mitchem said.

Weyerhaeuser representatives did not return phone calls late last week.

“Rail banking is voluntary. If (Weyerhaeuser) doesn’t want to do it they don’t have to. But if the don’t they have to go through the abandonment process,” Mitchem said, adding that many trails projects “are a win-win for everybody.”

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Contact City Editor Andre Stepankowsky at 360-577-2520.

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