By STEVE HART
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
It’s too soon to plan a public trail along the mothballed railroad right-of-way between Willits and Eureka, the North Coast Railroad Authority said Wednesday.
“We don’t have the resources,” director Allan Hemphill told trail supporters at an NCRA board meeting in Novato.
Railroad directors shelved a resolution inviting trail proposals after hearing questions about potential legal, financial, engineering and environmental hurdles.
Freight service on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad north of Willits was halted by storm damage in 1998 and there are no plans to restore the northern route.
The rail authority is trying to resume cargo service on the 62-mile southern end of the NWP between Napa County and Windsor, after a $68 million repair job.
Trail supporters have been pushing for a rails-to-trails program that would preserve the northern train route while allowing hikers, bikers and horseback riders to use it, a process known as “railbanking.”
A 95-mile stretch of railroad between Willits in Mendocino County and South Fork in Humboldt County cuts through the spectacular Eel River Canyon, part of the state and federal wild and scenic river system.
On Wednesday, the railroad authority considered a resolution that would have called for trail proposals.
“This would be a major step forward,” said Chris Weston, founder of the Eel River Trails Association, a Humboldt County-based group that is lobbying for public use.
But some Eel River ranchers are skeptical of the idea, saying they already have problems with poachers, marijuana growers and other trespassers.
“We will fight you on this,” said Peggy Satterlee, whose family owns a 28,000-acre ranch in the canyon near Fort Seward.
“We don’t want the dogs, the horses and the fires,” she said.
The railroad authority has no funds to study or build trails, said Mitch Stogner, the agency’s executive director. Another group would have to come up with a plan and raise the money, he said.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether the publicly owned railroad has legal authority to convert the train right-of-way to another use, said Chris Neary, the authority’s attorney.
“We’re going to have to take a look at that,” he said.
A trail would require extensive environmental study and engineering in the landslide-prone river canyon, Neary said.