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Rails-to-trails project

A biker rides along North Pacific Avenue on Saturday afternoon next to an old railroad, which is the proposed site for a rails-to-trails bike path project.

The effort to convert a stretch of railroad running from Longview to Toutle into a trail is moving forward on a smaller scale after opposition from Weyerhaeuser ended negotiations for the bulk of the rail project.

Although negotiations with Patriot Rail Company to convert a 7-mile stretch from Longview to Ostrander are ongoing, the larger stretch to the Green Mountain Mill site near Toutle is off the table for now, according to county officials.

Initial discussions about converting the 30-mile stretch of rail through a nationwide “rails to trails” project began after Patriot Rail Company LLC abandoned the rail line in 2015.

The Florida-based company purchased the Weyerhaeuser Woods Railroad and the Columbia & Cowlitz Railroad from Weyerhaeuser in 2010. Weyerhaeuser retained ownership of the land in the upper 22 miles from Ostrander to Toutle and a 1.5-mile stretch at the Longview mill site.

Weyerhaeuser opposed the project on its land, citing safety concerns. In 2017, a Weyerhaeuser spokesman said the timber company works too closely to the rails to make them suitable for a hiking and biking path.

Patriot owns the 7-mile portion that begins south of Ocean Beach Highway and ends at the junction with the mainline near Rocky Point. The line includes the bridge over the Cowlitz River and trestle through North Kelso and Cowlitz Gardens.

County Commissioner Dennis Weber said Patriot is willing to negotiate transfer and adjustment for that 7 miles. The Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments has taken over as lead on the project because it covers multiple jurisdictions, Weber said.

Elaine Placido, county community services director, said the county stopped working on the project last September, when the federal Surface Transportation Board denied its request to continue negotiations. Placido said she thinks the denial was an error from the board lumping the rail sections together, rather than removing just the northern section from negotiations.

In March, the county received notice that the negotiation extension had been approved, but it expired just two days later, Placido said. The county submitted another request, which was approved through September, she said.

“I think it’s a fantastic project and good opportunity to add some diversity of transportation in the urbanized area,” Placido said.

Patriot would have a strong interest in avoiding abandoning the lines, a potentially costly legal proceeding, according to the county. Banking the lines as a trails project is a way to avoid these costs.

Darcy Mitchem, who serves on the county Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, said because a historic review is required for the railroad not converted to trails, there may be opportunities to “protect some key assets of that portion for the public” even if it doesn’t get turned into trails.

But the main focus now is on the Longview to Ostrander section, Mitchem said, noting that from what she has heard from others, the long timeline for the project is typical.

“I think the portion that is the old Cowlitz and Columbia line will probably be in public use in some form,” she said. “Portions of it will be a trail some day.”

Mike Karnofski was a county commissioner when the project first started. He said should the project move forward, it would be paid for by state and federal grants, as well as money from the county’s trails fund from gas tax.

Although Karnofski said he would love to see the entire line be converted to trails, it would be difficult to get the upper portion from Ostrander to Toutle.

“I would like to get as much as we can, but at least the portion to the base of Beacon Hill would really be a great addition and a great potential to connect the trail systems,” he said.

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