Kudos to responsive local residents of varying mindsets – supportive, opposed, and neutral – with regard to a proposed trail beside the rails in the Wallowa-Union Railroad corridor. A multi-disciplinary group that’s currently embarked on a study of the concept’s feasibility elicited a wealth of earnest public input through a recent series of workshops in three communities.

For many adjacent landowners, the very notion of the 63-mile stretch no longer being devoted exclusively to train use but to pedestrian, bicycle, and probably equestrian use as well, unquestionably rankles. Unlike trains, which are always easily heard and seen, and which consistently follow an identical course (right along the tracks) and may even proceed on a previously knowable schedule, individual people and their animals never let you know exactly what to expect.

As is always the case with public trail proposals through private ground, neighbors also have dozens of relevant and reasonable questions and concerns about everything from trespassing and firearms policy to restroom facilities and weed control.

Despite the plan’s numerous challenges – including the potentially thorny one of just finding enough room alongside the rails at some locations to safely and affordably continue a trail – the basic idea of trail use has merit.

Consider the importance of bicycling use alone. Three years ago, when boosters of local tourism asked the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners to endorse state recreation officials’ offer to include this valley on a state-designated scenic bicycling route, the commissioners decided to turn down the offer because they didn’t want to encourage bicycling on scary Highway 82.

The commissioners’ decision was entirely correct. The winding highway so badly lacks a consistently adequate shoulder for bicyclists, they can hardly help but endanger themselves and the unfortunate motorists who suddenly come upon them.

A trail suitable for bicycling near the rail line should allow cyclists to quit entirely the most dangerous stretches of Highway 82.

Roughly a dozen years ago, governments in Wallowa and Union counties joined forces to prevent the rail line’s abandonment. A conservatively minded group, their effort demonstrated a stubborn refusal to relinquish what had been a key component in the area’s once fully functional resource-based economy. If there’s ever a chance that such activities as logging and mining could be fully resuscitated here, continued presence of a rail line is likely to be one of the decisive factors in that turnaround.

Meantime, directors have been lucky in getting the line paid off (courtesy of a Great Recession that idled so many rail cars that Union Pacific paid handsomely for storage), recovered from an abortive deal for outside management that sidetracked the local operation for an entire year, and not long ago fended off an insistent subgroup of trail enthusiasts, call them the “purists,” who were pushing for the rails to be scrapped to raise money for paving. (Many other trail supporters, incidentally, aren’t so bought in to the assumption that a paved surface would be best.)

Doing what’s best for Wallowa and Union counties along the rail corridor means continuing to maintain it, complete with its existing tracks, while exploring any sensible options for the corridor’s use. We don’t know yet for sure whether a trail does make sense, and figuring that out is what the current process is all about. –RCR

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