The Joseph Branch Rails with Trails project withdrew its application for a six-mile trail along the Wallowa Union Railroad Authority tracks between Joseph and Enterprise. Ranchers had protested the idea, claiming that traffic on the trail would interfere with their ranching activities, which is protected under Wallowa County’s “Right to Farm” ordinance.
Wallowa County native Natalie Millar is spokesperson and treasurer for the JBRWT. She said the July 2 decision to withdraw the application was not an easy one. She noted that the group had heard the concerns of ranchers, many of which Millar described as valid.
“It was a long discussion,” Millar said. “We talked for almost an hour and talked to our lawyer, too.” She said the withdrawal vote was nearly unanimous.
The trail group’s attorney, Garrett Stephenson, also advised the group that its appeal did not face the best of odds. The attorney advised the group that spending a significant amount of time and money for a possible ‘no’ on the appeal was not in the group’s best interest. Transitions within the board membership of the group also made the going difficult.
“We decided it would make more sense if we made this less of a political battle, and try to get some more evidence of people using the right-of-way respectfully,” Millar said. “We’re kind of taking it as kind of a chance to regroup as a group and make sure we’re not overextending ourselves. We’re a volunteer board and we’re working a lot to make this happen.”
According to Millar, it’s hard to disprove negative possibilities that ranchers threw up as roadblocks against the trail.
One particular instance that helped move the group’s decision along was the results of a special county commissioners meeting on June 17 to discuss the JBRWT appeal of the ruling of the planning commission. According to Millar, at that meeting commissioner John Hillock recused himself from having to vote due to a financial conflict of interest, even though the county’s land-use attorney, Dominic Carollo, and the JBRWT attorney present, Charles Gillis, didn’t think Hillock’s interests would meet the bar for recusal. Hillock’s decision caused the group to think the two other votes would result in a tie and negate the appeal.
Another decision affecting the withdrawal was the decision of the commissioners to essentially keep the record open until July 1 for the submission of only new or clarifying evidence to be entered into the record. The commissioners would have held an additional meeting on July 9 to weigh the new evidence and possibly render a decision.
The group’s attorney advised that those decisions would entail much more time and work. Creating more of a political stir was also a consideration for the group.
“We wanted to see if there was an easier way to make this a possibility without it being a political uphill battle kind of thing,” she said. Millar added that the group is working on balancing individual duties so no one suffers from job burnout.
In the immediate future, the group plans to re-establish its leadership while maintaining a cordial working relationship with WURA.
“We’re working on possibly getting some grants to get an employee to help manage this project and get it where we want to go,” she said.
Despite the recent setback, Millar remains optimistic that the group will fulfill its mission.
“We need to take a breather because we’re all kind of exhausted,” she said. “We’re still optimistic because I think there’s a lot of community support for it. That’s what we got from this process — that a lot of people want this to happen.”
Millar said that the Joseph Branch Rails with Trails is a volunteer board always looking for new members. Contact the organization at: https://www.josephbranchtrail.org/contact.