Great Redwood Trail concept traversing California’s North Coast takes steps forward

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A 300-mile walking and bicycle trail envisioned along the North Coast and linking the San Francisco Bay with Humboldt Bay has gained some financial footing through the state’s budget process, boosting the chances of realizing the grand project.

The creation of the Great Redwood Trail would convert the old rail corridor overseen by the debt-stricken North Coast Railroad Authority into an asphalt and dirt pathway from Larkspur, through the Eel River Canyon north of Willits, and ending just outside Eureka.

First, however, the Ukiah-based public rail agency must be eliminated. The transportation subcommittees of both houses of the state Legislature have approved Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request of $3 million to continue the lengthy process, advancing the plan introduced in a bill by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and signed into law last year.

“This begins the beginning of the end for the NCRA,” said McGuire, who also serves as assistant majority leader of the state Senate. “It’s time to … start focusing on a new chapter with the Great Redwood Trail and close a long and unfortunate chapter in NCRA’s checkered history.”

With the expected passage of the state budget in mid-June, $500,000 from the general fund would go toward completing an audit of NCRA’s finances, which are likely to show debts totaling at least $12 million. The other $2.5 million allotted by Newsom would be spent on reviews of the defunct railway’s right-of-way boundary and property easements for future buildout of the trail, which so far has no estimated cost.

Another obstacle was removed last month with a settlement agreement between the NCRA and two Humboldt County-based environmental nonprofits that sued the railroad agency in Marin County court in 2011 to ensure compliance with the state’s environmental restrictions for managing pollutants. The resolution nullified the NCRA’s contested environmental report and granted legal fees to Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics.

“It’s a very fragile countryside with a very polluted rail line,” said Patty Clary, executive director of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics. “The reason we fought it was it’s a toxic mess from end to end. If the Legislature is now spending money on a trail, the state shouldn’t balk at doing the right thing about environmental remediation.”

Next up, McGuire will host town hall meetings in each of the four counties where the proposed trail would traverse, starting with one in Humboldt County on Saturday. The second public event will take place on June 22 in Mendocino County at the Ukiah Valley Conference Center, with town halls scheduled in Sonoma and Marin counties this summer.

“We want to include the community on every stretch of the line throughout the North Coast,” McGuire said of the meetings leading up to a three-year trail master plan process. “We’ll start bringing focus to the Great Redwood Trail vision, with the most important part of the events being advancing communitywide conversation about where we’ve been, where we’re at now and where we’re going with the trail.”

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