Stubborn thinking

The start of the Banks-Vernonia rails-to-trail

There's a glorious plan for a rails-to-trails project in my neck of the woods in Oregon. It's been planned out for years and funds have been raised. For good projects like this, there are so many available grants (in the millions of dollars) that the county bought up all the necessary land easements and was set to begin construction on the trail soon. In the area, there's basically no way to get from north to south safely, as the only paved path is a high speed 55mph narrow two-lane road with no shoulder and no bike lane.

The region is economically depressed, as there are no major employers or manufacturers, so pretty much everyone works and commutes elsewhere to larger cities. A rails-to-trail network would be a boon to the area. I saw the transformation myself with the Banks-Vernonia trail about 20 miles north of this proposed route. 15 years ago I traveled to Vernonia for an event, and being a former lumber town, I'll never forget the day I was there because all the shops and restaurants were closed up and there was no place to get lunch on a Saturday. The place was a ghost town. I ended up getting food on the way home a few miles away. When I returned to ride the actual trail in 2014, I remember it being a tuesday afternoon and when I pulled into Vernonia on my bike, every restaurant was crowded, the streets were filled with people and I ended up getting lunch from a hot dog cart (and even that had a line).

Imagine a railway from the 1800s that has sat dormant since the 1980s, turned into a wide, flat paved off-highway road for families to enjoy while they spend their time (and money) in the region. It's a no-brainer and a big win-win, right?

The miles of trail that will someday be used by thousands crosses through a couple dozen farms, and this being a freedom-loving conservative area, they're not fans of any of it. While everyone has had a railroad easement on their property since the 1800s, farmers are always looking for arable land even when it's only a couple percent of their overall space and even though the county will build fences for protecting their farms (the Banks-Vernonia trail has dozens of custom fences built and paid for by the trail).

The farmers have banded together and lobbed legal challenges at every step of the way, grinding down a lot of progress. Even now that final studies and construction plans are being drafted, they're turning their opposition to 11. They flood county meetings talking about how trash will line the entire trail and how people running with dogs will somehow frighten or maul their livestock or that the trail will become a home for the homeless. It doesn't matter that there is zero crime (I was at an earlier meeting where a sheriff from Banks said he's never been called to the trail and to date had zero crime reports on the trail), no homeless, and little-to-no trash on the Banks-Vernonia trail, or that the only bike trail with homeless encampments is the one in downtown Portland with easy access to city facilities (this trail would be miles from any town where you could even get something to eat).

I really hope a couple dozen farmers don't win this fight. They're being extremely myopic as soon there could be thousands of families happily using this safe, off-highway trail to enjoy the region and visit the towns along the way. I have no doubt this will be a huge economic driver for an area big on winery tourism. Having a 20 mile paved path linking the region together safely will showcase everything the area has to offer and thousands of visitors will enjoy it every weekend, most likely stopping at any towns along the way to eat and drink.

If you live in Northwestern Oregon and would someday consider a trip on this completed trail, the county is asking for comments from people in support of the project. The details are all in this Facebook post with a deadline of this Thursday to hear public comment that helps drive it forward.