In a bid to pay off its debt, the Wallowa Union Railroad Authority is looking to form a partnership with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
good times in the backcountry: Recreational opportunities in the Wallowa River Canyon between Minam and Elgin could expand under a proposed partnership between the the Wallowa Union Railroad and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Above, an angler trudges up the tracks during one of the railroad’s fishing excursions. Local officials see a chance to link the railroad to other forms of recreation, including hiking, biking and camping. The Observer/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH
The taxpayer-owned railroad is fine-tuning a proposal by Board of Directors Co-Chair Mike Hayward to sell the 26-mile right of way between Minam and Elgin to the parks department.
As part of the deal, the railroad would be allowed to continue its operations in the canyon. The state and county would work together to develop recreational opportunities in the river corridor.The WURA board discussed the proposal in a work session last Wednesday in Elgin. The session, part of WURA’s December regular meeting, focused on various ideas for upgrading the recreational opportunities in the canyon.
Hayward cautioned that the parks department will look at the railroad’s proposal from the standpoint of providing those recreational opportunities. Keeping the railroad in business is not the department’s responsibility.
“They’ve made it clear, they want to see some sort of opportunity there. They’re not interested in buying it to preserve the railroad,” Hayward said.
The board sees the sale as a win-win for the railroad and the state. The railroad could pay off its remaining debt and the parks department would have a long stretch of river corridor to offer the public for recreation.
The railroad right of way extends 50 feet to either side of the center line of the track. In places, it abuts lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management.
According to talk during the work session, the area could be improved to accommodate hikers, campers, mountain bikers, anglers, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Features might include a hiking-biking trail along the river and a campground near Lookingglass Fish Hatchery, an area accessible by vehicle.
The campground might accommodate recreational vehicles. That, said Co-Chair Steve McClure, could turn out to be a big plus for the tourism-oriented railway.
“If we did a development there that included overnight RVs, there’s a possible tie to the excursion train. A revenue stream comes with that,” he said.
Janet Dodson of Union County Tourism said she sees many opportunities to improve train ridership.
As it has in the past, the train could shuttle anglers to prime fishing spots along the river. Dodson also suggested field trips led by a geologist or botanist.
“I’d like to see picnic spots where we could stop the train and have an event,” she said.
She added that a hiking and biking trail would support her organization’s efforts to attract cycling enthusiasts to the region.
Board members agreed there are many issues to work out before the railroad presents a formal proposal to the parks department.
For one thing, the segment of right of way between Rondowa is designated “Scenic” by the BLM and state parks department. With the designation comes restrictions on recreational development, Hayward noted.
Placement of structures, for example, is closely governed.
“If you were building restrooms, they’d have to be up out of the river corridor,” Hayward said.
Also, if a hiking and biking trail was built, it would be according to the guidelines of the Federal Railroad Authority’s “Rails and Trails” program.
Those guidelines say a trail may be built along a rail line but not on the tracks. The trail may, however, cross the tracks at certain points.
In addition to dealing with restrictions imposed by public agencies, McClure said the railroad has some work to do in negotiating easementswith private landowners along the corridor.
Board member Susan Roberts said she supports hiring someone to make a conceptual drawing to show to the parks department. The drawing would mark potential attractions, including trails, restroom facilities and camping spots.
“It would provide a visual of what could be done there. It would be like a mechanical drawing showing the layout,” she said.
While the conceptual drawing is being worked up, Dodson will work on a draft of a written proposal. The entire proposal will be reviewed by the board at its next meeting, Jan. 7 in Wallowa.
When the board is satisfied, it will take the documents to Salem and make a formal presentation to the parks department.
In 2002, Union and Wallowa counties bought the line from Idaho Northern and Pacific Railroad. Funding sources included a $2 million grant from the Oregon Lottery and a $5.5 million loan from the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department.
Three years ago the railroad was awarded $4.5 million in federal money to pay down the loan. That reduced the debt to about $1.85 million.
This week, Hayward declined to say how much money the railroad will ask from the parks department.
“It would be premature,” he said. “If they are interested, an appraisal would have to be done. Then we would negotiate a price,” he said.
Last October, McClure, Hayward and others took parks department representatives, including Director Tim Wood, on a train ride along the river canyon.
The proposal for the parks department to buy the land was not specifically discussed during the tour.
Wood did say that money his department gets from the Oregon Lottery is used for property acquisition, and for improvements and maintenance of existing infrastructure.