Abandoned tracks between Eureka and Arcata, which may someday become a non-motorized link of the Great Redwood Trail. Or a coal train. Photo: Andrew Goff.




In a ruling this morning, the Surface Transportation Board – the federal body hearing the state of California’s case to railbank the defunct Northwestern Pacific Railroad line between Humboldt and the Bay Area – has seriously set back community efforts to complete the Annie & Mary Trail, the long-dreamed-of pedestrian and bike path between Arcata and Blue Lake.

The ruling – which you can find at this link – determines that the private companies that ran train service before the state-owned North Coast Railroad Authority took over had legally abandoned the line as long ago as 1985, meaning that the easements over the land have reverted back to the land owners.

“The Board … determines that the abandonment of the Arcata & Mad River subsidiary was consummated decades ago,” the Surface Transportation Board writes, in its unanimous decision. “Thus, this rail segment has already been removed from the interstate rail network and the Board’s jurisdiction over it has terminated … As a result, the Arcata & Mad River subsidiary is no longer part of this exemption proceeding and the Board cannot consider requests for its interim trail use/rail banking.”

A related ruling also declares that a stretch of track on the Samoa Peninsula is outside the board’s ability to railbank, given that it is “ancillary” track – not part of the main trunk of the line — and therefore not subject to Surface Transportation Board regulations.

As far as that main trunk goes – the stretch from roughly Arcata down to Novato – the STB’s ruling holds that the state’s Great Redwood Trail plan must be paused while two outside parties who say they want to revive the railroad line are allowed to make their case.

One of those parties is Mendocino Railway, which says it would like to run trains to and from some point in the Eel River Canyon north of Dos Rios. Mendocino Railway is the company that owns the Skunk Train, which used to run from Willits to Fort Bragg but has been crippled by slides and closures for many years. It also recently seized a large swath of acreage within the Fort Bragg city limits under an obscure provision of eminent domain law.

The other party is a new limited liability corporation called the “North Coast Railroad Company.” The exact ownership of the corporation is obscure, but it’s been documented – here and elsewhere – that several groups with interest in the export of coal, including the Montana-based, coal-producing Crow Tribe, are involved.

Attorneys representing California’s Great Redwood Trail Authority – the state agency that took over management of the line from the North Coast Railroad Authority – had argued that the Surface Transportation Board should bypass these “offers of financial assistance,” given the lack of documentation available about these parties’ plans and resources, but the board, in its ruling, disagreed, saying that such issues should be addressed in a full hearing. 

“[A]rguments questioning the legitimacy of potential offerors and the continued need for rail service in this proceeding are more appropriately addressed during an [offer of financial assistance] process that considers, among other things, the financial responsibility of offerors, a demonstrable commercial need for service, and the operational feasibility of continued rail service,” the board writes.

In a congressional hearing last week, Rep. Jared Huffman pressed Martin Oberman, chair of the Surface Transportation Board, about what sort of factors might be considered during such a process. Oberman assured Huffman that financial viability, community input and even the government’s carbon goals would be taken into consideration when determining whether or not another company should be allowed to take the rail line away from the state. 

Nevertheless, Scott Greacen, conservation director at Friends of the Eel, said that the public should be aware that it’ll be an uphill battle, in any case. “The bottom line is that the STB’s regulations are a playing field that are tilted decisively toward rail use,” Greacen told the Outpost earlier today.

So the Great Redwood Trail railbanking project has been prolonged, and it’s uncertain whether or not it will be allowed to proceed. If it’s not, that would affect not only the centerpiece of the vision that state Sen. Mike McGuire has been promoting since he authored the Great Redwood Trail Act — the unbroken hiking trail between Humboldt Bay and the San Francisco Bay Area — but dozens of regional trail planning efforts in the counties containing the North Coast Railroad tracks, including the extension of Eureka’s waterfront trail to the north and the south.

But the more immediate news — that after decades of planning, the Annie and Mary Trail has been effectively upended — took local trail planners by surprise.

Speaking to the Outpost this afternoon, Emily Sinkhorn, the city of Arcata’s environmental services director whose trail work extends back to her time working for the Redwood Community Action Agency, said that the city is confident it can move forward with its own section of the Annie and Mary Trail, which currently has some funding behind it. The Annie and Mary section of the line doesn’t begin until the tracks reach the Alder Grove Industrial Park, near the city’s northern edge, and so building the trail alongside the tracks up to that point shouldn’t be a problem. Beyond that, she said, the city is working with landowners adjacent to the rails — including the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District — to secure right-of-way as far as Pump Station #1 on the Mad River.

The larger vision of the Annie and Mary Trail — Arcata to Blue Lake — has been set back, Sinkhorn allowed. All of a sudden, trail planners will have to work with a patchwork of land owners who may or may not be open to the idea of a trail running through their land. Easements could be costly and difficult to acquire.

But Sinkhorn isn’t ready to throw in the towel yet. “There’s been 25-plus years of support for connecting Arcata to Blue Lake, so look for more creativity to make that happen,” she said.