Have You Heard About the Yamhelas Westsider Trail?
WHAT IS THE TRAIL? The trail is situated in Yamhill County, Oregon, with small section extending into Washington County, and extends 14.8 miles from Gun Club Road to just south of the small town of Gaston. It passes through the towns of Carlton, Cove Orchard, and just east of the town of Yamhill. Eventually, Washington County hopes to purchase the rail line from Gaston to where the spur line that goes to Hagg Lake. Washington County also wants to purchase that spur line so cyclists, joggers, and others will have easy access to the lake. The plan is to build a 10-foot, paved-surface trail, with a soft-shouldered trail alongside to accommodate joggers and possibly equestrian riders. Eventually, it’s hoped that the trail, through other trail connections, will connect McMinnville, Forest Grove, Hillsboro, the Banks-Vernonia trail and one day the Salmonberry Trail.
The trail system uses the abandoned Union Pacific Railroad right of way, which Yamhill County purchased. The rail bed is still in place but overgrown with vegetation in some locations. Bridges would need to be constructed in several locations. There will eventually be several trailheads created in places like Carlton, Yamhill, and Gaston. Wayfinding, signage, flashing yellow lights alerting drivers to cyclists crossing roads, rest areas, benches, and picnic tables would also be installed.
The purpose for the trail was to create a safe path where cyclists, walkers, joggers, and others could recreate. Currently, cyclists, walkers, and joggers need to use Highway 47 to travel from town to town. Farm tractors, combines, sprayers, semis, and other large vehicles also use this road. Some farming equipment can take up much of the road width of the highway. This creates a dangerous situation for cyclists and pedestrians using the road.
Given the hazards of pedestrians and cyclists sharing Highway 47 with large trucks and farming equipment, there was broad support for such a trail system from the public with the exception coming from some farmers. The support was enough that progress on developing the trail got underway in 2012. The National Park Service was involved in the initial trail project and the conceptual plan. Yamhill County commissioners, adjacent landowners to the trail, the public, and municipal leaders participated in the initial development of a concept plan for the trail.
THE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL BENEFITS OF THE TRAIL Without going into the direct, indirect, and community economic benefits a trail system would have on local communities, it’s worth pointing out that trails are great for local economies. Where trail systems have been implemented, whether they be wilderness, multi-use, or water trails, communities bordering such trail systems have reaped economic benefits.
Take for example Oakridge, Oregon. This town was once an important logging town—its livelihood centered around logging and the dollars that industry brought into the community. With the reduction in logging in the area since the early 1990s, Oakridge faced an identity and economic crisis. What to do? Oakridge could have gone the way many cities in the rust belt back east have gone through and dwindled into practical obscurity. Instead, forward-thinking community members came up with a wonderful plan. Oakridge had the hills; it had the old logging roads; it had restaurants. Why not use those to create a mountain biking destination. And, thus was born one of the best mountain biking trail systems in the West. Oakridge still lacks adequate hotel services, but that’s in the works. Oakridge is thriving.
Parks, trails, and other recreation opportunities in a community increase property values and make businesses want to locate to where such infrastructure exists. Of course, an increase in property values isn’t without the downside of increased property taxes, but improved wages can offset that.
While cycling has lost some participants since the end of COVID, it’s still important as the 2022 Outdoor Industry report points out. Overall, cycling and all other outdoor recreation contributed $862 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). That’s HUGE! Running and cycling were the second and third most popular outdoor recreation activities, respectively, as the 2022 Outdoor Industry report illustrates. Biking was the largest outdoor activity among those 6-17 years of age; running was fourth.
Yamhill County is wine country and hosts several wine-tasting businesses, and the trail would run through the wine region. Cycling would benefit these businesses by incorporating bike tours. Associated with wine-tasting is the need to cafes and bistros. Gaston could similarly benefit from these same businesses. These towns could become destination points and encourage the need for hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments. A cycle shop or tour company in Carlton, Gaston, or both would provide jobs and economic benefits to these small communities. Tommy’s, the only bicycle shop currently in Yamhill County, would also benefit.
THE TRAIL BECOMES POLITICAL Right now, unfortunately, construction of the trail is on hold. Some farmers are dead set against the trail. They feel the trail would bring unsavory people into the area and specifically near their property. They expressed fear that cyclists would damage the their properties and if injured on their property sue them. Farmers use the Springwater Corridor Trail as an example of what they fear. They also expressed concern about the impact cyclists would have on their ability to farm and transport their agricultural products.
Addressing the fear farmers have toward the Springwater Corridor Trail and the impact a similar trail might have near their property, one must put things in context when looking at those concerns. Yes, the Springwater Corridor Trail has had issues with homeless camps alongside the it in the past. However, when I rode the trail in September, there were no homeless camps bordering the trail. There was trash left over from homeless camps, but the trail felt safer. The section of the trail Gresham maintains just east of Powell Butte to Boring has not had a homeless camp issue or litter problem. My feeling is that Portland, because of its size and crime rate, just has bigger fish to fry and invests its police toward those crimes and not toward homeless camps along the trail. That said, Portland has gotten around to cleaning up the trail because of reported drug use and just a lack of safety trail users feel. I’d also like to point out that the Springwater Corridor Trail goes through industrial areas in Portland, whereas in Gresham and out to Boring it goes through housing communities and rural areas. These areas are less conducive and tolerant of homeless camps.
Industrial areas need not be a magnet for homeless camps. While visiting the Galloping Goose Trail in Victoria, British Columbia, a year ago, I never spotted a single homeless camp or homeless person along the trail. The trail passes through both industrial and residential areas. The message here is that communities need to police the trails regularly. British Columbia does that, Portland doesn’t. The bottom line is that landowners in Yamhill County shouldn’t use one section of the Springwater Corridor Trail to justify their trepidation and objection toward the Yamhelas Westsider Trail. I believe that given the smaller population size of Yamhill County and the towns and cities in the county along the proposed trail those towns and cities are better capable of maintaining the safety around the trail.
The Row River Trail in Cottage Grove is another prime example of a well-maintained trail that has benefitted the city of Cottage Grove. There are no homeless camps or litter along the trail.
Many of the farms that border the proposed trail grow hazelnuts. Hazelnuts require the spraying of pesticides. The farmers worry they will be prevented from spraying their trees for fear of poisoning cyclists, walkers, joggers, and others using the trail. I should point out that the Banks-Vernonia Trail also borders farmlands and that the concerns farmers in Yamhill County express toward the trail hasn’t been a problem with farmers whose lands border the Banks-Vernonia Trail.
Despite concerns of some landowners, things seemed to be progressing well until the 2020 election of Lindsey Berschauer who campaigned to stop the trail development. It didn’t help that former Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla who supported development of the trail left to join Oregon Wild. Elect Lindsey Berschauer campaign signs were posted on many agricultural lands leading up to the 2020 election, clearly demonstrating she was the favored candidate of farmers, never mind that she herself isn’t a farmer and until most recently lived in a spacious home on the Willamette River, far removed from farmers in Yamhill County. She’s also an Arizona native who has lived in Oregon less than 10 years, so she hardly knows the needs and desires of Oregon or Yamhill County residents. She’s an opportunist who played on the fears and concerns of the powerfully strong agricultural community in Yamhill County.
WHERE DO THINGS STAND NOW Prior to elections in 2020, funds had been raised to start development of the trail, and one of the bridges for the trail was built. The trail was promoted as a safe way for students in the Yamhill-Carlton area who use a shared school district to get from home to school and back. It was advertised to help build community cohesiveness and provide a safe place for citizens to recreate away from the traffic along Highway 47. Safety and community livability were put on hold thanks to Lindsey Berschauer and fellow Yamhill County commissioner Mary Starrett.
Yamhill County has decided not to go forth with the trail by not responding to the Land Use Board of Appeals’ (LUBA) remand or complete the second and third phase of the master plan for the trail. The one bridge that was installed at a cost of $661,723.60 has been removed.
I propose that a more effective way of addressing the problem would be to create a measure funding the creation of the trail and to put it on the 2024 ballot. Commissioners come and go. Mary Starrett is time-limited, so she can’t run again, and Lindsey Berschauer is up for reelection in May 2024. Some may be receptive toward the trail; others may oppose the trail and hold up its development or cancel sections yet built. Putting the trail on a ballot measure the citizens could vote for or against would tell commissioners what the citizens of the county want. If the ballot measure passed, commissioners would be locked into developing the trail regardless of who is on the commission and their political standpoint.
Writing ballot measures takes a certain amount of skill and understanding of Oregon laws. If you or someone you know has experience writing ballot measures and enjoys outdoor recreation, I would encourage you to reach out to me to help in fashioning a ballot measure for the 2024 election cycle.
Until a ballot measure is passed or Yamhill County gets commissioners who favor and value outdoor recreation, the trail is in limbo and not likely to see the light of day.