A proposal for a segment of the Great Redwood Trail south of Ukiah is getting scrutiny from environmentalists who are concerned about plans to remove over forty valley oaks, a half dozen of them more than forty inches in diameter at breast height. But city staff say many of the trees, including the biggest ones, can likely be spared as plans for the trail continue to evolve.
The original vision for the Great Redwood Trail was that it would be railbanked, or built on top of the railroad tracks, which would provide a pre-existing frame with ADA-compliant slopes and bridges across waterways. In October, the Surface Transportation Board, the federal body that regulates railways, gave the nod to the Great Redwood Trail Agency, a state organization that grew out of the Coastal Conservancy, to railbank the northern portion of the line from Willits to Eureka.
But no such permission has been granted for the southern portion, including a segment that the City of Ukiah plans to build from Commerce Drive in the Airport Park area to Norgard Lane, at an estimated construction cost of $2.3 million. The city got a grant from the state Urban Greening Program for a little over $3.5 million for the project, when staff expected to be able to build the trail on the tracks. But as the authorization to railbank never arrived, the city paid design contractor GHD Inc. an additional $50,000 to amend the design for a trail that would run alongside the tracks.
That’s where concerns about plans that include removing 43 trees came into play. Linda Sanders was among the three local women who asked the Ukiah City Council this week for more opportunities for the public to engage in plans for the trail. “The Urban Greening Grant is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” she said during public comment. “And the GHD design plans will not get us there. It will be twenty years before any newly planted native trees will produce the shade that these indigenous trees are already providing, and sequestering carbon currently. Cutting them down will be releasing more carbon into the surrounding environment.”
Mayor Mari Rodin spoke about her involvement in the original plan, and her view of the current iteration. “I was involved, before I was on the City Council, in writing this grant with Neil (Davis, founder of the Ukiah Trail Group, and the Director of Community Services at the City of Ukiah). The original concept was to be on top of the rail. And there would have been no trees cut. It was never in anybody’s concept to cut any trees down. In fact, the grant required the planting of a couple hundred more oak trees. And so because of this whole railbanking problem, the default was to do the continuation of this thing that nobody’s really that happy about, with the asphalt. And because it’s so expensive to do it that way, in comparison to just throwing the trail on top of the rails, we had to make it much shorter than we originally wanted it to be. So we’ve been really sad.”
Andrew Stricklin is an associate engineer with the city’s public works department. He’s one of the city staff who’s been shepherding the trail project. He said the trail can be built around many of the trees, including the half-dozen largest valley oaks. “I think we can definitely shift the trail, and narrow it down,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to take down a tree that size, for sure. The majority of trees that might be unavoidable, which isn’t a done deal either way,” are those that are five to seven inches on the southern end of the proposed trail.
Stricklin says permitting requirements include restoring and mitigating wetlands that will be disturbed by building the trail alongside the track, and that work can only take place during certain times of the year so as to avoid disturbing wildlife. But the grant timeline means the city can’t wait around indefinitely for the Surface Transportation Board to approve railbanking the southern portion.
“Our permit wouldn’t extend that far,” he said. “Then we risk losing the money completely, which we’ve already spent a significant portion of, just for design. So the city would not be reimbursed for that.” The city has spent close to a half million dollars on the project so far, which was “more than originally planned, but when we had to go off the ballast, the railroad tracks itself, a lot more design was involved, with all the extra permitting that we had to do…it was going to be a lot simpler when we were just going to be on the tracks.” He’s also concerned that if the city doesn’t stick to its agreement with the granting agency, which also funds projects like smoothing out streets to include bike lanes, its chances of getting future grants will be diminished.
Stricklin emphasized that nothing has been finalized yet, and members of the public who are interested can contact him at the Ukiah public works department. He said he has already walked the trail with some concerned parties, and will do so again next week. “We are trying to have everyone be heard, and even get their ideas,” he concluded.