Working Together for Rails AND Trails

By Jack Mulder, Port of Tillamook Bay Commissioner
Would you like to ride your bike on a trail from Banks to Tillamook? Or explore the remote Salmonberry Canyon? How about a stroll from Garibaldi to Barview with views of the Three Graces alongside lovingly restored steam engines?
On Friday, February 2, the Port of Tillamook Bay and the Salmonberry Trail Intergovernmental Agency (STIA) realized a significant milestone in the negotiation of a lease that allows STIA to move forward with planning and design of a multi-use trail within the Port’s railroad right-of-way. This lease is the most recent step in five years of planning, discussion, public meetings, and the input of various stakeholders toward the vision of building a trail that will connect communities within Tillamook County and may eventually provide a connection through the Coast Range to Timber and Banks. This trail has become known as the Salmonberry Trail.

Before getting further into the details of the trail, you might wonder: What is the Port of Tillamook Bay? And what is STIA?
The Port of Tillamook Bay is a local special district governed by a board of five commissioners elected by the citizens of the central part of Tillamook County. The Port includes the Tillamook airport, the blimp hangar and Tillamook Air Museum, 1,550 acres of land around the hangar and airport that are Tillamook County’s primary reserve for industrial development, and the former Port of Tillamook Bay Railroad.
The railroad, which struggled to remain profitable during its years of operation, was severely damaged in a 2007 storm and flood. Instead of rebuilding, the Port applied available FEMA funds to improvements at the Port. These improvements support and nurture businesses like De Garde Brewing, Near Space Corporation, the CHS feed mill, Stimson Lumber, Hallco Industries, and Tillamook County Creamery Association.
The Salmonberry Trail Intergovernmental Agency is a partnership between the Port, Tillamook County, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, and Oregon Department of Forestry along with several other groups and individuals who support development of the proposed Salmonberry Trail. With two of the four deciding votes in STIA, the citizens of Tillamook County have a strong voice in this partnership. All STIA meetings are open to the public and rotate between Tillamook, Banks, and Salem.
After the Port’s decision not to rebuild the railroad in the wake of the 2007 storm, FEMA helped pay for some emergency clearing. The Oregon Coast Scenic railroad did some work as well, and the OCSR paid a “per use” fee to operate. In 2012, the Port entered into an agreement with the OCSR to operate on the western portion of the line, from Tillamook to Enright, a few miles into the Salmonberry canyon. The OCSR’s agreement ends in 2027, and the Port and OCSR are currently in discussions about extending this agreement.
Because interstate freight operations on the line had ended, the Port proceeded with railbanking the line under the National Trail Systems Act. This protects the property in case it becomes economical to restore freight service in the future. By protecting the right-of-way from possible reversionary clauses, it also protects the OCSR’s ability to operate. Under the National Trail Systems Act, the Port must have a trail partner for railbanking, and STIA is the entity that became this partner. As in any partnership, a formal agreement was necessary, and so the Port-STIA lease was created. In negotiating the lease with STIA, it was important to the Port to continue to deliver on its commitments under current agreements – crossings, easements, leases, and other types of agreements. While STIA can raise concerns about how current agreements could impact trail development, STIA cannot force changes to current agreements or any auto-renewal clauses in those agreements.
For STIA, it was important to have a voice in the negotiation of new or modified agreements that may impact trail development, so STIA is able to raise concerns and object to future agreements based on several criteria. However, as noted above, STIA is a public entity controlled by two local governments and two state agencies, all of which are accountable to the public in general, and to the citizens of Tillamook County in particular, so the public will have a voice in these future decisions.
Where do we go from here? The path forward involves a continuation of the public process. Nothing changes with existing crossings, easements, leases, or other agreements. A trail will not appear on 84 miles of right-of-way overnight or even in the next few years. While a Concept Plan has been written for the whole trail, more detailed planning with numerous local stakeholders has only been completed on the Coast segment, where rail-with-trail solutions were identified from Wheeler to Tillamook. The Valley segment from Banks to Timber is up next, and that planning is in progress. Planning for the (Nehalem) River and (Salmonberry) Canyon segments is yet to come and will include the OCSR.
Sections of trail with high value and strong support may be built in the next few years. The first section of trail will be Tillamook’s “Cross Town Connection” trail with construction this summer. The Coastal Segment Advisory Committee has prioritized rail-with-trail solutions in and between our local communities where the trail and the railroad will operate side by side. These “catalyst projects” will be built based on local interest and to serve local needs. Throughout this process, the voices of all stakeholders will be heard.
Trail advocates, Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad supporters, conservationists, foresters, farmers, equestrians, hunters, and people who live and operate businesses adjacent to the railroad right-of-way have all been involved in the process, and it is my hope that they will continue to be. Old trains are cool, trails are great, fishing and forestry and agriculture are the foundation of our local economy and way of life, and our natural environment sustains all of these. We have an opportunity to build a world-class resource in our community that will provide numerous economic and quality of life benefits, but it will only be considered a win if we do it together.
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Jack Mulder grew up in Tillamook and has been a Port of Tillamook Bay commissioner since 2013. He is also the Port’s representative on the STIA board of directors.