Chris Weston: Let’s Dare To Dream Of Interconnected Trails – March 16, 2011

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

One day soon, hydrocarbons will be too expensive to use casually, so we will be dependent on non-motorized trails to get around. At present, you risk your life by riding a bike or horse or by walking along motorized roads. We have lost far too many lives and injured many others, simply because as a society, we have chosen to discourage people from sustainable and healthy forms of transportation and recreation. At the Eel River Trails Association (ERTA), we dare to dream big. We envision a future in which there are as many non-motorized trails as paved roads to go to the beach, the mountains or simply to go to town. Welcome to the birth of the post-motorized age on the North Coast!

Envision being able to ride your horse or bike or hike from Arcata to virtually anywhere you want to go. Now, envision being able to do that without the fear of being run over by a careless driver, because we have class one trails going everywhere. That means a new system of interconnected trails that are off limits to motorized vehicles. If you cannot afford a car or the gas it burns, you will still be able to travel, albeit a bit slower, perhaps taking the time to smell a few of the flowers along the way.

The next time that you go to the grocery store, make a point of looking around and noticing how many of us have grown overweight or obese. The early 21st century homo sapiens tend to be couch potatoes, sedentary in our approach to life. According to Humboldt County’s Health Director, Dr. Ann Lindsay, we need to exercise more and trails have been shown to encourage more active lifestyles. You may even have chosen to live behind the “Redwood Curtain” in order to live closer to nature, but with our hopelessly outdated transportation system, we are discouraged from communing with nature.

Instead of trying to copy Los Angeles and importing the megalopolis with all of its modern problems of pollution, gangs, drugs and neighbors who don’t even know each other’s names, we should embrace our good fortune. Being so bountifully blessed by Mother Nature is our economic competitive advantage. We should celebrate this fantastic natural wonderland we call home. It is like nowhere else on Earth. So, let’s boldly encourage living in harmony with the great outdoors everyday in every way!

The ERTA’s first non-motorized campaign is off to a great start. We have collected 6,100 signatures in about six weeks on a petition to “railbank” the long-defunct NCRA rails from Willits to Humboldt Bay. At about 150 miles, the “Eel River Trail” will become the longest rail-trail project in California’s history. Starting in Mendocino County and traversing the geologically-active Main Stem Eel River canyon, the trail will connect Arcata with Eureka, Fortuna and even Willits! It will not be paved, so that you will be able to ride your horse or bike or hike all the way to Humboldt Bay.

The Eel River Trail will immediately become an eco-tourism magnet, attracting people from around the world. It will bring jobs both in the conversion process and afterwards. It will mean sustainable, eco-friendly jobs in the shops, stores and bed and breakfasts that will cater to the non-motorized crowd. It will be an economic boon to all the towns it goes through or near. It seems destined to usher in a slower pace of life that is kinder and gentler in its impacts. It will be good for your health, good for the Earth and good for the economy.

Many people are interested in how it will be paid for? In fact, there are many available funding sources, including grants from charitable foundations and existing rail-trail programs through federal, state and county governments as well as bequests, endowments and day use fees. Already, there are 19,000 miles of defunct railways converted into trails in the US. Ironically, this is an area in which the North Coast, usually one of the most progressive areas of the country is actually behind the times. Let’s catch up and burnish our green credentials in a lasting, more obvious way.

If you believe that railroads can be very efficient, rest assured the ERTA agrees with you. In fact, railbanking is the safest way to preserve the possibility that railways can return when technology, demand and funding are available. In fact, without railbanking, we could lose the valuable public access rights forever. If the NCRA corridor were legally “abandoned,” what some other owners of land along it seek, then our right of way would be permanently lost for either railroads or trails. The only possible recourse to abandonment outside of railbanking is eminent domain, the detested coercive way for the government to take private land.

Instead, ERTA is reaching out to form the broadest possible coalition to make the Eel River Trail the right way. Personally, I happen to own a mile frontage on the river and the defunct railway, so I “have skin in the game” and I am sensitive to the concerns of my fellow land owners and neighbors. Rail-trails have been shown to decrease crime, to clean up the messes left by railroads and to bring sustained, green economic development (translation: JOBS!) However, if we wait too long, someone from Washington, D.C. or Sacramento will make an executive decision and then we may not have input into what results.

Again, ERTA wants the trail to be a benefit to all, including local land owners. We want to talk with all stakeholders and find ways to make this a win for us all. Our supporters include many members of all organized political parties. We aim to make trails the obvious choice and believe they are so popular that no rational politician on the North Coast will dare to oppose us. If you have concerns or want to contribute to the effort, or need a copy of the petition to collect signatures, please call (707) 223-2226.

Remember, the “Eel River Trail” is only the first “trunk line” for non-motorized use envisioned in the Eel River watershed. We are already developing plans for another through the Humboldt Redwood State Park and we are also strategizing for multiple “spur lines” to the sea and inland destinations. We aim for full interconnectivity by non-motorized trails to all towns and all outdoor recreation facilities, including skate parks, botanical gardens, the Leggett Ropes Course and the world-class mountain bike trails in BLM’s King Range, etc.

Our vision is expansive and it is transformational. The North Coast will be changed forever and we will all be better for it. We will be healthier, wealthier and happier as a result. Trails may not be the panacea for all of our ills, but they may define our new paradigm of living in harmony with nature. Let’s awaken from our collective slumber and roll up our sleeves. We all have work to do. The world will be better because of it.

Please join us in leading the charge towards a greener tomorrow! Meet you on the trail!

Chris Weston is the founder of the Eel River Trails Association. He can be reached at (707) 223-2226 or at P.O. Box 185, Phillipsville, CA 95559.

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