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Groups meet to define relationships, iron out projects
ELGIN — A proposal for a bicycle and hiking path along the Wallowa-Union Railroad tracks gained momentum Tuesday, as the Wallowa-Union Railroad Authority, the Wallowa-Union Heritage Trail Coalition and the railroad board met to define their relationships, and refine some preliminary ideas for the project.
Coalition members from both Union and Wallowa counties have been urging construction of the trail along the 65-mile line between Elgin and Joseph, though the idea is still in its infancy and no funding is in place yet.
In the well-attended rail authority meeting at Elgin City Hall, board member Steve Adams said he has been meeting with the coalition and is close to submitting a “framework” document that spells out how WURA and the coalition will interact as the trail project goes forward.
“I would say we’re progressing at good speed and with good organization,” Adams said. “It seems to me the relationship is in good shape and proceeding effectively.”
He added that once details are worked out, the document would be submitted to the railroad board for final approval.
“Probably in the next few weeks would be the time to finalize it,” he said.
Some people involved in the issue have suggested a “rails-to-trails” approach in which the tracks would be removed and replaced with a trail.
Adams made clear that the board only approves of a “rails-with-trail” scheme, meaning that the tracks of the WURR line will remain in place “in perpetuity.”
He also said the rail authority will have final say-so in all matters related to the trail.
“We want to make it work, but we have to be the ones who say yes or no. We have a railroad in place and it will stay in place,” he said.
Terry Edvalson, head of the recently-formed heritage trail coalition, gave a report during the meeting. He said his group has a board of directors, is filing for non-profit, tax-exempt status, and is planning a website.
Both Union and Wallowa counties are represented on the board, he said.
Edvalson also said that Sara Miller of the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District is applying to Cycle Oregon for funds for a Phase One feasibility study. He said the Cycle Oregon funds, if granted, would pay for Miller’s staff time as she researches issues.
Also present at the meeting were Rocky Houston, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department state trails coordinator, and Jim Hutton, the OPRD’s Eastern Oregon district manager.
Houston said his department took part in some trail discussions for the WURR line back in 2009, and is willing to act as a consultant in the current effort. He stressed that at this point, the state department isn’t offering funds.
“The process is figuring out what you need, what kind of beast you’re trying to hug,” he said.
Hutton said the state department wants to work on the project, but only if a spirit of collaboration and cooperation prevails.
“As soon as it starts getting strange or disorganized, we don’t want to be a part of it,” he said.
Houston said public participation in the process is a must. He suggested open meetings at “listening posts” in both Union and Wallowa counties.