A sneaky, underhanded move by state lawmakers nearly gave away a major stretch of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail to private landowners.
I AM from Tekoa (population 843). We are your neighbors to the east.
Though Tekoa is a small farming community on the Washington-Idaho border, we are connected by the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. If you were to leave your house this summer and get on a bike, horse or put on sturdy hiking boots, you could cross almost the entire state on a path with no cars and end up in our town.
The trail is 285 miles long, a 100-foot wide ribbon of beauty extending through lush forests, dramatic scablands and the vibrant pastures of the Palouse. Each step offers peace, tranquillity and gracious vistas. The John Wayne Pioneer Trail is one of Washington’s premier trails, made possible when the state paid $3 million for the abandoned Milwaukee Road rail line in the early 1980s.
Last year, in a sneaky, underhanded move, state Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, and state Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, used a capital budget amendment to try to close a 135-mile section of the trail in Eastern Washington and give control of the land to 200 adjacent landowners (many of whom are also their friends and neighbors) without public notice or hearings. They also happen to be Tekoa’s representatives in Olympia.
Some 6,000 acres of trail was nearly taken from bicyclists, hikers, horse riders, Boy Scouts, geologists, tourists and historical advocates without a single conversation ever held with any of them.
Fortunately, the legislators did not read their own proviso carefully and a miraculous typo prevented implementation of the land grab.
In ensuing months, there has been a public outcry over the shenanigans, and 18 Washington cities from Spokane to Sequim have passed resolutions asking the Legislature to help fund and maintain the trail.
State lawmakers will again consider the fate of the trail in January when the State Parks Department is expected to make a capital budget request.
But like children caught in the cookie jar, Schoesler and a handful of landowners continue to offer excuses and fight against the trail in hopes of its closure. At first, Schmick explained that he “didn’t think this issue warranted the attention of 147 legislators.” Other reasons given for the midnight grab included liability, litter, weeds and rattlesnakes.
Their new tactic is to “fiscal” it to death. For every trestle repair, trailhead or water pump, the argument will be, “It’s a waste of money” and “you’re underpricing repairs.”
But the price tag is low compared to other infrastructure work done in Washington. It has an excellent return on the investment, not only for our state tax base but particularly for several small towns along the trail that are suffering. Tekoa’s population has declined 40 percent over the last 40 years. Last year, we had three restaurants; now we’re down to two.
Further, by repairing the trail with work phased in over the years, we can avoid a great impact on our state budget and allow the trail to begin generating income immediately.
If you’re a cyclist, trail user, horse owner or just appreciate the beauty of our state, we need help:
• Ask your city council to pass a resolution in support of the trail.
• Attend the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission meeting, 6 to 8 p.m., May 10 at the Preston Community Center, located six miles east of Issaquah.
• Email or call your state legislators, especially Republican caucus members, and ask for their support to protect and fund the trail.
We are only a small circle of supporters and have been unable to attract any large organizational or key public support, except for the hard work of the Cascade Rail Foundation, the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders Association and The Friends of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail.
I would also caution that I fear the failed budget maneuver reveals a deeper fissure in our state’s policy toward park land and our democratic process. We should be concerned and re-examine why funding for public land is so politically dependent in Olympia and vulnerable to the power of the budget proviso.