A budget plan to close the eastern portion of the historic trail has caught users off-guard and stirred up controversy over the trail’s upkeep east of the Columbia River to the Idaho border
For more than 30 years, Washington’s John Wayne Trail has offered bikers and horseback riders a unique opportunity to traverse the state on the former Milwaukee Railroad route. But the future of its eastern 135 miles is uncertain.
A now-on-hold proposal from Eastern Washington legislators to close the section of trail east of the Columbia River surprised many to the west in Kittitas County who appreciate the trail and the tourism it brings.
“Here, it’s a resource; I don’t think many people could envision losing what we have,” said Jim Armstrong, the chief executive of the Kittitas County Chamber of Commerce.
But across the Columbia River, some say it’s a very different story.
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The remote, rural and largely unimproved section of the trail east of the river is not as popular as the Kittitas County section. Neighboring landowners also say the state is failing to deal with weeds and address issues of trespassing and dumping.
A proposal included in the 2015 capital budget would have given the eastern half of the trail to its adjacent landowners and closed public access, but it was not enacted because of a typo. One of the sponsors says he’s still seeking a solution to problems faced by the trail’s neighbors.
“Where it’s been fixed up and it’s nice, it’s a tremendous asset. But on the other side of the water, it’s been 35 years and really nothing’s been done,” said Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax. “It gets limited use and the landowners want the land back. I was just trying to find a solution.”
Protests from users and small communities along the trail erupted when the plan to give up the trail came to light in September.
Schmick committed to work with a group of landowners, trail users and state park representatives before renewing efforts to close the trail.
Nikki Fields, the trails coordinator for Washington State Parks, said she’s looking forward to working with the committee to find solutions that protect public access to the trail.
Roughly 100 miles of the trail from near North Bend to the Columbia River have been developed and get regular and even heavy use in some places. However, efforts to develop the trail east of the Columbia River have languished.
One group already using the eastern section regularly is the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Rider Association, which organizes an annual horseback ride that traverses the entire trail.
“It’s beautiful, it’s breathtaking,” said club President Darlene Brady. “This trail belongs to the state of Washington and the only thing that saved us is a typo that said ‘from the Columbia River to the Columbia River.’ ”