Monday, December 5, 2022

The Great Redwood Trail Hits a Roadblock as Bidders Emerge in the Final Hours to Purchase the Railroad

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The Eel River Canyon Preserve, one of the key landscapes the Great Redwood Trail would navigate [Picture from the Wildlands Conservancy]

Senator Mike McGuire may have taken his victory lap a little too soon at a town hall about the Great Redwood Trail on Wednesday night.

“Tonight we are able to announce — and this is late breaking,” he declared; “We have finally put a nail in the coffin of Big Coal. We have beat back Big Coal and the toxic coal train.”

The nail may be in the coffin, but there’s no train in it yet.

McGuire was exulting about what he thought was the extinguished threat of an anonymous coal interest, registered in Wyoming, that was planning to buy the railroad from Willits to Eureka and use it to ship coal to Asia out of the Humboldt Bay. 

That would put an end to years of effort to turn the railroad into a recreational trail all the way from one Bay Area to the next, from Marin, through the Eel River canyon to Eureka. Sections of the trail have already been built in some communities alongside the tracks. But McGuire and trail advocates were looking forward to railbanking, or filling up the tracks with dirt and gravel, so the trail could be on top of the ready-made line. In order to do that, the federal Surface Board of Transportation would have to declare the tracks abandoned, and grant McGuire and his allies permission to railbank. Anyone who wanted to prevent that from happening was supposed to file their intent to buy the tracks with the Surface Transportation Board by May 31.

But the next day, possibly while McGuire was thanking supporters for beating back Big Coal, the North Coast Railroad Company announced its intention to buy the entire 176 miles of track from Willits to Eureka, including appurtenant branch lines.

Congressman Jared Huffman issued a statement Thursday, saying “their late application should disqualify them for further consideration. If not, the coalition of community opposition and their lack of transparency certainly will.” 

The only name associated with the Wyoming-based LLC is Robert A. Wimbish, the attorney, who apologized for his tardiness by explaining that it was “due to unforeseen vacation travel delays.” 

At a hearing last month, Huffman asked the Surface Board of Transportation Chair, Martin Oberman, where he stood on demanding transparency. “Would the Board require that entity to engage with the community and the public in an open and transparent way,” he began; “in other words, if they’re secretive about who they are, about where their funding comes from, is that  a factor that you would consider?” 

Oberman replied, “that’s not a factor that’s come before us. But I generally believe in full disclosure, and when we get those kinds of applications, we have the ability to insist on a more fulsome application of the facts, which would include revealing the basic financial structure of the entity and so forth. So the general answer to your question is yes,  but it’s very much case-specific.”

A graphic published on Senator Mike McGuire’s Facebook page expressed his disapproval of the coal project

But North Coast Railroad isn’t the only company trying to buy part of the track. McGuire is also worried about another application, by Mendocino Railway, the parent company to the Skunk Train. Mendocino Railway wants to take over 13 miles of track from mile marker 139.5 to 152.5, from Willits to just past Highway 162, in order to ship gravel from Outlet Creek to Willits or Fort Bragg. However, there is a tunnel on that stretch of the track that long been out of operation due to a landslide. “So right now, if there was a rail company operating on this line, they couldn’t even get to the coast because of this massive landslide that’s blocking the track,” McGuire said. He added that he does “have some concerns with this application…number one, it’s going to create a huge hole right in the heart of the Great Redwood Trail.” In addition, he estimated that, while the cost of railbanking could be $12,000 to $15,000 a mile, repairing the damaged track and the tunnel would cost tens of millions of dollars. 

Oberman told Huffman the Surface Board of Transportation doesn’t concern itself too much with financial details. “You know, we generally are mandated by statute to make it easy for rail lines to come into existence,” he said. “That’s one of our jobs. “There’s a spectrum on how much we look at financial viability. Generally speaking, we take the view that the market will determine whether a rail line is viable.”

Two other train-track-oriented interests filed their intent to buy sections of the track, as well. The Timber Heritage Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the timber history of Humboldt County, wants to buy 18.5 miles from Eureka to Samoa, to offer excursion rides on restored timber crew cars. Pete Johnston, the Association’s president, assured the Surface Board of Transportation that “Designation of this portion of the right of way is not in conflict with the larger Great Redwood Trail Agency’s trail mission;” and he is willing to negotiate with the Agency “on any dual access or potential conflicts emerging to preserve corridor usage for both parties.”

And Rail Runners Humboldt Bay in Arcata operates what it calls “a recreation concession for passengers to experience a pedal-powered rail vehicle for an excursion along Humboldt Bay.” In 2019, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, the mayor of Eureka, and the Humboldt Bay Harbor Recreation and Conservation District, all wrote letters in support of the concession. The owners demonstrated their financial viability by taking out a line of credit on their home and putting up part of a retirement account to buy 5.5 miles of line in Eureka and Samoa.

In his remarks to Surface Transportation Board Chair Oberman, Huffman characterized the coal train as, “very unlikely to happen, certainly is at odds with the climate policies expressed by the Administration and Secretary Buttigieg. So I just hope these factors will be on your mind as you discharge your responsibility.”

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Good, we need the commerce and we have tourists a plenty who walk through town without spending any money. All the time people here complain on internet threads, like this one for instance, that they can’t afford to own a home and they lambast boomers for owning everything. Then they revel in the Redwood curtains ability to keep them poor. You cannot have it both ways. I am of the opinion that we are in the end times of our civilization and that we will be lucky eventually by our isolation and the ability to allow our 4 main arteries to the outside to cease to function when the time comes. That said, I am a boomer who worked 100 hour weeks for years and does not eat out more than a couple times a year or order my food brought to me. I will hopefully be dead when the economy completely collapses.

  2. While I think the idea of a trail is great, what would be greater in terms of the environment and economy would be to have a train that ran from the SF Bay and Marin up to Eureka. Think of the possibilities in terms of moving people around, getting to the City without having to drive a car, moving goods from manufacturers in Humboldt and Mendocino County, and all the small farms that produce wonderful food and wine, down to the Bay Area. It would be a huge boost for tourism to Northern Coastal California. In Europe, trains are an environmentally clean form of transportation, and there is no reason we couldn’t adopt this model instead of relying on individual gas burning cars.

  3. I support full functioning of the entire line for full service, either as a Class 1 or Class 2 RR. Yes, it’s expensive to maintain. Tourism & gravel will be the main sources of revenue, because many of the mills the NWP RR used to service are gone, but lumber could still be shipped out of Scotia.

    I do not support a trail in such a remote area of the Eel River Canyon… medical emergencies, trash, fire danger are real concerns in an area with little cell phone service

  4. The closing remark sounds like a political threat that is likely to be addressed in court. Government should let the free market do its job, instead of taking credit for spending “our” money.

  5. What are you guys talking about? An unknown entity wants to buy it to ship coal and a logging company wants to buy a section and a tourist attraction in Humboldt wants part of it. And if that don’t go through than it’s gonna be a trail. Its not gonna ship goods, or food or wine, or transport people as a class 1 or 2 railway. Whoever has the most money gets it. Within the climate policies or not.

  6. The railway we are speaking of should be renovated and modernized for use. Having an established right of way is the major hurdle for any transit system, crops , goods and people will fill the train cars! Oh did I mention water ! Tank cars of water maybe much needed at some point in the not so distant future.

  7. Doesn’t anyone realize what an asset a railroad is? One boxcar can carry as much as 5+ semi trucks. The carbon footprint of a railroad is miniscule compared to that of a superhighway.

  8. California is sending a lot of money to catch up on maintenance of the rail network. It may not make sense if you only look at local needs, but the bigger picture is that the rail network is worth repairing. Having an alternative way to move people and goods makes us more resilient

  9. Nutcase Senator Mike McGuire is cutting off our economic nose to spite our faces.
    You like being poor in Biden’s economy of $10 gas coming?
    You think you will turn on your lights for your kids to do homework when all electric cars compete with usage and electricity doubles? PG&E loves you.

    Stop a rail link that could also later provide a mass transportation link instead of a walkway for rich greenie kids?
    Climate policy where California coastline is now going up for bid by Biden administration for wind power = dead shore birds chopped to bits but at least fed to the fish, not in TOXIC eco-death piles like in Nevada wind sites.

    Stopping interstate transportation of coal so other American states will starve with unemployment for Green ideals?
    Knee jerk energy policy has to be stopped.

    Stop voting in economic killers like Senator Mike McGuire

  10. Governor Newsom surely should have some input on this subject. He is well versed in rail construction issues. He is currently involved in wasting billions of dollars on a new high speed train track from Bakersfield to Merced. Rails should be open for use by the year 2050 then he can purchase a new electric high speed cho cho from China.

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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