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Great Redwood Trail master planning process gearing up

December 1, 2021 — Senator Mike McGuire’s dream of a 320-mile Great Redwood Trail from the San Francisco Bay to the Humboldt Bay is a few million dollars closer than ever to becoming a reality. At a town hall on Tuesday night, he exulted over the funds he plans to tap to bring the project to fruition.

“We now have funding to be able to move the Great Redwood Trail forward,” he told listeners, elaborating that this year’s budget act included several items significant to the trail. One, he said, is that it appropriated enough money to pay off the remaining debt from the North Coast Railroad Authority, which owned and operated the northern portion of the railroad to be converted into the trail. Another is $10.5 million to pay for the master planning process, an intricate, years’-long procedure that will lay out the operations and management of the trail.

But McGuire’s victory laps alternated with bouts of alarm over the coal train, which he assured listeners will never happen, though it must be taken seriously. The application for the outdoor recreational paradise he’s envisioned for years will be in direct competition with an application by out-of-state business interests to revitalize the railroad and run 800 loads of coal per day through the Eel River Canyon and the Humboldt Bay to overseas markets. 

McGuire said that the Eel River Canyon contains some of the most geologically fragile areas in North America, and reminded listeners that there are still train cars in the water from a massive landslide that covered the tracks in 1989. It wasn’t the first time. Shortly after the turn of the last century, McGuire said, “the first day that a train was on it, a massive landslide came down over the tracks.” He said the federal government shut down operations after the 1989 landslide. “You will never see a freight train going north through the Eel River Canyon,” he assured listeners. “You can’t make it work financially.” Still, he worries that the threat of the coal train could “tie up the Great Redwood Trail for years on end, saying that they’re going to be able to get this started. The bottom line is, you will ever get a damn train through the Eel River Canyon...and the last thing that we would want to see anyway is an 800-car coal train coming through the Eel River,” or the Russian River, which, between the two of them, supply drinking water to over a million people. 

Plans to railbank most of the northern segments still need approval from the federal government. Railbanking is building the trail on top of the tracks, which does make it possible to revert the railroad to its original purpose. McGuire said that has only happened on about 20 miles of the 25,000 miles of railroad that have been converted to trails across the country. 

The southern portion of the trail, from the Mendocino/Sonoma County line to Marin, will run alongside the railroad tracks, which are owned and operated by SMART, the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit. The northern portion has been under the purview of the North Coast Railroad Authority. But in September, Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 69, a bill written by McGuire. Under the new law, as of March first, the North Coast Railroad Authority will be known as the Great Redwood Trail Agency. And starting in July, the State Coastal Conservancy will take over the management of the organization.

Several segments of the trail have already been built. But details about how to build the trail in the backcountry, where to put restrooms, how to maintain fire safety, and numerous other concerns, will be outlined in a master plan which is scheduled to get going next year and take three to four years to complete. 

Karen Geier of the Coastal Conservancy indicated that figuring out what to do about tunnels could be some of the trickier aspects of the master plan. “If there are places where it’s just astronomically expensive to redo the tunnel and a reroute is feasible and makes sense, it’s something we should pursue,” she said. “We also need to look at the tunnels that are still open to make sure they’re still safe, and do a little bit more of an engineering analysis on the safety of the existing tunnels that are open. We’ll see how far we get with that in this master planning process.” 

Geier and McGuire agreed that current trail-building projects are not in conflict with the master plan. Many jurisdictions are already building trails along the route, including Ukiah, Willits, Arcata, Healdsburg, and Marin and Sonoma Counties. “We certainly don’t want this planning effort to get in the way of trail projects that are already moving forward,” Geier emphasized. “It’s exciting that we are already seeing trails constructed, and we want those to proceed alongside the master planning process that’s going to be happening.”

Audio version of "Great Redwood Trail master planning process gearing up"

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