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Rail to Trail

An effort to turn the old Weyerhaeuser Co. Woods Railroad into a trail linking Longview to Toutle has hit a speed bump.

Weyerhaeuser, which still owns the land along the abandoned line, says it won’t allow the route to be turned into a “rails to trails” project for safety reasons. Spokesman Anthony Chavez said the timber company works too closely to the rails to make them suitable for a biking or hiking path.

“At this point, we have a diverse age class of timberland along those 22 miles, so at any given day there could be operational activity,” he said. “It’s just not compatible with having a trail against those timberlands.”

Florida-based Patriot Rail LLC purchased the 30-mile railroad from Weyerhaeuser in 2010. However, Weyerhaeuser retained ownership of the land under them in the upper 22 miles from Ostrander to Toutle and a 1.5-mile stretch at the Longview mill site. Patriot owns the 7-mile portion that winds through Longview, crosses the Cowlitz River and ends in Ostrander. When Patriot abandoned the line in 2015, it sparked talk about turning the old line into a “rails to trails” project.

Cowlitz County Building and Planning Director Elaine Placido said she’s aware of Weyerhaeuser’s opposition to the trail, but she did note that negotiations haven’t officially begun yet. On Aug. 11, Patriot sent an abandonment filing to the Surface Transportation Board, according to Placido, letting the county know it is officially giving up the rails.

Building and Planning then filed a notice of interim trail use, which states that the county will be willing to assume financial responsibility in developing the trail.

Now, the county has to negotiate with Patriot Rail for its portion of the line. Placido said her department has been constantly in touch with Patriot Rail, and the Jacksonville, Florida-based company should be willing to talk. Patriot did not return multiple calls for comment.

Placido warned that the process could take a while.

“We’re so far at the beginning, there’s no way to tell (how long the process will take),” Placido said. “Some rails-to-trails projects take years to complete. I think after we get started on negotiations, we’ll have a better idea of how long the acquisition process will take. Then we need to build up a group that’s interested in championing the process. So we probably have years.”

She also said she has “absolutely no estimate” of how much money the entire project will cost. However, she suggested that non-profit groups, the parks board, trails groups and other organizations could help raise money for the trail.

It’s unlikely the county could finance the project without grants and outside assistance. Its had little recreation money to spend in recent years, prompting its decision to give Willow Grove Park to the Port of Longview.

Placido also pointed out that within 50 days of the abandonment filing, if another railroad is interested in the abandoned railway, that company can submit an offer to purchase the line, and it would trump any ‘rails to trails’ project.

Placido said the project is a stellar idea.

“There’s lots of trails, but a trail that links the urban areas into the rural areas is unique and different,” she said. “There’s people that look for those rails-to-trails projects and see them. It’s just another draw for Cowlitz County.”

In Lewis County, Washington State Parks is halfway finished with a similar rails-to-trails project: Willapa Hills Trail.

According to Brian Yearout, the construction project coordinator for Washington State Parks, the Willapa Trail’s price tag is around $12 million so far, mostly from state grants. The trail currently goes 26 miles from from Chehalis westward to the Lewis County line. The eventual trail end will be at Raymond in Pacific County.

Pierce County’s rails-to-trails project, the Foothills Trail, has been under development since 1989 and currently runs 15 miles from Puyallup through Orting to the tiny community of South Prairie.

Buzz Grant, the president of the Foothills Rails To Trails Coalition, said although the project has been expensive — nearly $1 million per mile — he said that the steep cost is worth the numerous benefits of a large paved trail.

“You go out on a trail on a certain day and see the people out there, and there’s lots out there. I remember, many years ago, calling a friend of mine and saying, ‘We’ve got trail gridlock out here. There’s so many people on this trail.’ “

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