Threatened by coal proposal, Great Redwood Trail gets boost from new law

“Big coal is trying to do an end run on the North Coast,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, who vowed to “fight them tooth and nail.”|

Plans to transform a decrepit, abandoned North Coast rail line into one of the nation’s longest rails-to-trail routes inched closer to reality this week with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature on a law advancing the Great Redwood Trail.

The bill, written by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, continues the phaseout of the defunct North Coast Railroad Authority, which had overseen the coastal rail corridor stretching north from Sonoma to Humboldt County. As of March 1, 2022, that body will become the Great Redwood Trail Agency, charged with planning, building and maintaining a multi-use, non-motorized 320-mile trail from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay.

The Great Redwood Trail Act provides a timely boost for McGuire and other opponents of a rival and more recent plan, formed by a secretive, Wyoming-based limited liability corporation called the North Coast Railroad Company. That outfit proposes to restore the abandoned train tracks north of Sonoma County, then use them to transport massive amounts of Rocky Mountain coal to Humboldt Bay for export overseas.

The Great Redwood Trail Act represents “a massive step forward” in the campaign against the coal shipping plan, said McGuire, who points out that the rival export proposal would run tens of millions of tons of coal along unstable, slide-prone ground, mere feet from the Russian and Eel Rivers, which provide drinking water for nearly a million Californians.

“Big Coal is trying to do an end run on the North Coast,” said McGuire on Friday. “We are going to fight them tooth and nail.”

The signing of the new law, signals that “California is firmly behind the construction of the Great Redwood Trail.”

“This is huge,” agreed Caryl Hart, the former Sonoma County parks chief who is a member of the NCRA board, the Great Redwood Trail Steering Committee, and the California Coastal Commission. “It’s the moment we’ve all been working toward.”

The bill “transfers the mission” of the NCRA, from rail to trail, said Hart. The state budget, she noted, includes $16 million earmarked for the Great Redwood Trail, including $10 million for the master plan that will provide in-depth analysis of potential costs.

That phase of the project, to begin in early 2022, will include community engagement, environmental and engineering studies, a design plan for each segment of the trail, and long-term construction costs. It will also feature wildfire mitigation and security plans.

That document could take three to four years to complete. “Our philosophy has always been, we need to do this right, not fast,” said McGuire.

The project could be delayed, and possibly killed, by the rival application filed by the mysterious North Coast Railroad Company with the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency overseeing the nation’s railroads that has been known to override the preferences of local and state governments.

To prevent that, McGuire has introduced a bill in the state Senate that would eliminate state funding for rail projects associated with a potential coal terminal at the Port of Humboldt, he said.

Said Hart, “We’re gonna pull out all the stops” to make sure the coal train “never happens.”

“My biggest concern is that the feds don’t have eyes on the ground for what’s happening in Mendocino and Humboldt Counties,” said Mo Mulheren, a Mendocino County supervisor who sits on the NCRA board. She is not sure farflung federal officials can appreciate the “geological challenges” such a project would entail, particularly in the steep, ecologically sensitive Eel River Canyon.

The railroad north of Sonoma County was shut down in 1998 after rainstorms led to landslides that buried tracks and collapsed tunnels. Restoration of the line would cost an estimated $2.4 billion or more, according to NCRA Executive Director Mitch Stogner.

While lawyers representing the coal export proposal claim the company has $1.2 billion on hand, opponents are skeptical.

Robert Wimbish, the Chicago-based attorney who signed the North Coast Railroad Company filings, did not respond Friday to an email seeking comment.

“The reason they stopped using the rail line,” said Michael Jones, a Marin County-based bicycle and pedestrian transit planner, “is because they maintain it at a reasonable cost, due to continual, ongoing soil movement, landslides and washouts.”

When the trains were running, he noted, “there were quite a few derailments. You can see some of those engines and freight cars, still in the water.

Imagine, he suggested, the environmental impact of a coal train derailment in the Eel River Canyon.

“It would be devastating.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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