The Beginning of a Solution

Humboldt County group pushes rail-to-trail conversion

Chris Weston, founder of the Eel River Trails Association, wants to turn an unused rail line between Willits and Humboldt Bay into a trail system for hikers, cyclists and equestrians.
Published: Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 2:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 3:50 p.m.

It’s been 13 years since a freight train rumbled along the precarious 145-mile line between Willits and Humboldt Bay.

Now, reflecting a nationwide trend, a Humboldt County group is proposing that the decrepit, rock slide-prone railroad tracks that run through the steep Eel River Canyon be converted into trails for hikers, bikers and equestrians.

“Unless they find a way to bring rail service back, they ought to allow us to turn it into a trail,” said Chris Weston, a teacher, real estate investor and founder of the fledgling Eel River Trails Association.

He believes it would be a boon for tourism. “It could become a world-class destination,” he said.

Since the 1970s, about 19,000 miles of abandoned railroad tracks nationwide have been converted to trails and more are in the works, said Steve Schweigerdt, trail development manager for the San Francisco office of the Washington D.C. based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

They include the 4.4 mile Old Railroad Grade trail on Mount Tamalpais; the 5.8 mile San Francisco Embarcadero trail; the 9.8 mile Sacramento Northern Bike Trail; and the 161-mile Cowboy Trail in Nebraska, the nation’s longest rail-to-trails conversion project, according to the Conservancy’s website.

If built, the Eel River Trail would be among the longest of the converted rail trails, Weston noted.

Since mid-December, Weston’s group has collected nearly 7,000 signatures from residents of Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties who favor of his proposed rail conversion.

He plans to present the petition to the track owner — the North Coast Railroad Authority — at its March 9 meeting in Eureka.

The public railroad authority has yet to decide what it will do with the troublesome tracks, which have suffered multiple closures from flooding and landslides in its 97-year history.

“Before we do anything, the operator’s got to look at it and determine whether there’s sufficient freight to justify” the costs of fixing and running the rail line, said Mitch Stogner, executive director of the North Coast Railroad Authority.

The contracted operator, Northwestern Pacific Co., is preoccupied with getting freight service running on the section of rail line from south of Napa to Cloverdale, said company President John Williams.

“I’m not even to Windsor yet. I’m not thinking about going into the Eel River Canyon,” he said.

Weston said his proposal, through “rail banking,” would preserve the railroad right of way.

But Williams said removing the tracks and replacing them with trails likely would be the end of any consideration of freight service through the canyon.

“Once a railroad line is eliminated, it’s very expensive to put back in place with everything new,” Williams said.

It’s also widely believed to be prohibitively expensive to repair the existing line.

“There’s some real serious infrastructure problems,” said Mendocino County Supervisor John Pinches, whose district includes Mendocino County’s portion of the Eel River canyon.

Train tunnels are filled with rock, sections of the tracks are washed out or filled in and about a dozen derailed railroad cars remain on the sides of the canyon and in the Eel River.

Pinches considers himself to be pro-railroad but he doesn’t believe the Eel River canyon rail line will ever be feasible to run.

Built in 1914 to haul lumber to markets to the south, the railroad declined as logging lagged.

Freight service fell from up to 250 carloads of lumber a day in the 1970s to 600 a month by the early 1990s, when the North Coast Railroad Authority took over the line, Pinches said.

“The freight isn’t there,” he said.

Proponents of repairing the tracks between Willits and the Humboldt Bay south of Eureka have said that gravel and garbage hauling could fill the gap but Pinches thinks that’s a bad idea.

He said lumber cars regularly derailed, dumping lumber into the Eel River. “What would you do after the first spill of trash into the Eel River,” he said.

Turning the tracks into a trail is a fine idea, Pinches said. But he also doubts that’s feasible.

Weston said there are companies that build trails in exchange for the steel rail ties and other recyclable materials they remove. Rail ties were selling for a high of $100,000 a mile a few years ago but are now only worth about $30,000 a mile, Schweigerdt said.

It costs about $350,000 a mile to convert rails to trails, Weston said.

Grants could be available to help with some of the costs, he said.

Rail recyclers and trail builders may not be able to access the remote sections of tracks blocked by massive rock slides and they would be required to conduct expensive studies before they could try, adding to the costs, Pinches said.

The environmental impact study for repairing the 62-mile rail line between Napa and Windsor cost $3 million, Stogner said.

Pinches suggested that Weston’s group focus on the 26.5-mile stretch of track between Willits and Dos Rios, which are considerably less problematic.

“It’s probably doable,” Pinches said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or