Visionary Great Redwood Trail Bill Introduced

A derelict railroad trestle owned by the NCRA along the Eel River. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Eel River.
A derelict railroad trestle owned by the NCRA along the Eel River. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Eel River.

A bill proposed by state senator Mike McGuire promises to have a profound impact on the environment, recreation, and economy of the North Coast. It is a visionary plan to create the Great Redwood Trail from Arcata to Willits within the railroad corridor and through some of the most awe-inspiring landscape of North America. McGuire’s bill, SB 1029, comes after a lawsuit against the rail authority filed seven years ago that now sits before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court will decide whether to take it up in the coming months.

The bill would abolish the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA), a “rogue” state agency established in 1998 (after California purchased the lines) to oversee the 300 miles of the century old rail corridor. NCRA fought lawsuits brought by North Coast groups over a flawed environmental assessment by claiming that federal law, not the state, controls it, losing this argument in California Supreme Court last summer.

The Great Redwood Trail would pass by Humboldt Bay, through redwood forests and the Eel River Canyon, over bridges and through tunnels along the Eel River, reaching the northern edge of the Russian River watershed at Willits. The trail would ultimately reach San Francisco Bay by continuing south parallel to commuter rail tracks as operated by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART).

The existing rail around Humboldt Bay would remain intact for potential use as an excursion train. Construction of a parallel path along the bay’s east side is currently underway.

If passed into law, SB 1029 would provide 150 miles of pedestrian and bicycle trail in the northern half, much of it through remote and biologically diverse environments attractive to outdoor enthusiasts from around the world. NCRA would be replaced by the Redwood Trail Agency, which would lead the effort to raise funds for the trail’s design and construction.

NCRA’s Board of Directors piled up debt and flouted rules and regulations when inconvenient throughout its history. Decades of refusing to face the reality of the decrepit state of the railroad infrastructure—with toxic chemicals leaching into soil and water, railroad engines and cars littering the river bed, tracks hanging unsupported in the air where soil had slid out underneath—finally made the accumulation of problems so obviously intractable that the California Transportation Commission recently demanded that NCRA provide a plan for
shutting down.

A California Supreme Court decision last summer that ruled against NCRA contributed to the realization among state agencies and the legislature that something needs to be done about the recalcitrant agency and the valuable but neglected northern half of the rail corridor.

Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATs), an Associate Member of the NEC, and Friends of the Eel River (FOER) filed suit in state court in mid-2012, objecting to the inadequacy of NCRA’s Environmental Impact Report for its planned rebuilding and reopening of the railroad from northern Santa Rosa to Willits.

CATs contends that reconstruction of the railroad, as planned, would release toxic pollutants such as dioxin and pentachlorophenol from the old rail infrastructure into hundreds of streams flowing into the Russian and Eel rivers.

FOER claims that the EIR should analyze impacts of all the rail line north of Santa Rosa, including the Eel River Canyon, not just one piece at a time—an approach that limits a complete picture of environmental impacts to the whole corridor.

The cases were consolidated and fought all the way to the California Supreme Court, with NCRA taking several unsuccessful detours to federal and state courts as it attempted to shake loose the legal action against it.

Although it accepted $3 million from the state to write an Environmental Impact Report, NCRA argued through the long legal battle that it was exempt from state environmental regulations, and instead fell under federal railroad law. The board of NCRA even decertified its EIR tobolster this theory.

Neither CATs nor FOER have been able to argue the claims of their cases, as the groups have instead had to argue for the state’s right to control its agency’s actions in requiring compliance with CEQA.

Though NCRA’s rebellion against state authority was struck down by California’s Supreme Court, the agency didn’t hesitate to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, petitioning it to overturn the state’s decision. CATs and FOER recently responded. It will be months before the high court makes a decision on whether or not to take the case.

Meanwhile, SB 1029 has begun its journey through the state legislature for the next few months. If and when it passes, and the governor signs the bill into law, any further legal action may be mooted—or not. Stay tuned.

To voice your support of the Great Redwood Trail, contact Senator McGuire’s office at 707-445-6508, email to senator.mcguire@senate.ca.gov, or write to:
1036 5th St., Suite D
Eureka, CA 95501.

 

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