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Klickitat Trail History


History of the Klickitat Trail
By Bob Hansen

This piece is an outgrowth of a presentation Bob Hansen gave as a “Dealing with Difficult Neighbors” panel member at the 2006 Washington Trails Coalition Conference in Yakima, Washington, November 4th, 2006. It is segmented into three different phases:

  • Buildup
  • Confrontation
  • Administration [note: SR 142 refers to Highway (or State Route) 142 that parallels the Klickitat Trail and River for approximately 17 miles]

The Buildup
1993 to August 1, 2002

The Buildup phase began when the Burlington Northern Railroad Company, which operated between the Lyle main line and Goldendale, decided to abandon its operation. In 1993, The Rails to Trails Conservancy, working through attorney Charles Montange, purchased the 31-mile stretch between Lyle and Warwick in a package of five rail segments throughout the State of Washington for a total of $3.1 million. At the urging of the U.S. Forest Service, who expressed interest in managing the entire trail, the Rails to Trails Conservancy transferred the ownership of the rail line to Washington State Parks for the purpose of a linear trail. Under the Railbanking Act of 1983, federal agencies are not allowed to own “rail banked” lands.
Once the U.S. Forest Service began planning for the management of the trail and holding public meetings, outspoken adjacent property owners were hostile, violent and intimidating to Forest Service staff as well as trail proponents. In one memorable circumstance, a number of Forest Service employees walked the 13-mile Swale Canyon section only to be confronted by a landowner with a gun less than one half-mile from their destination point. With the landowner unwilling to let them pass, the Forest Service employees felt their only safe response was to turn around and hike the 13 miles back out of Swale Canyon.

This type of intimidation spread to the public hearings. The sheriff at the time stood by and listened, as trail opponents openly threatened to shoot trail users. Folks open or supportive of the trail left meetings threatened, intimidated and upset. People attempting to use the trail were routinely harassed and threatened, especially in Wahkiacus near the intersection of the trail with Schilling Road; at property at railroad mile post 19.7; at Pitt and to the south of Pitt approximately one mile south of SR 142. As intimidation grew, the trail languished.

In addition, Trail opponents sued for compensation as they felt they were entitled to the rail right of way when use of the line was abandoned. They lost their case in the court where they had sought relief, and were told by that court, where they needed to file suit for the compensation they sought. For some reason, they choose not to proceed as directed and time ran out for filing their compensation claims.
The U.S. Forest Service finally discontinued its attempts to manage the Klickitat Trail in 1997 as the result of direct pressure from Klickitat County Commissioners and a Washington Senator.

In May, 2002, Sean Stroup, a senior in the University of Oregon’s School of Landscape Architecture was conducting a field investigation for his senior project: a landscape plan for the Klickitat Trail. As he was riding his bicycle down the trail, he was assaulted verbally and physically by a trail opponent, who lived across the Klickitat River from the Trail on SR 142. In addition to the assault, the Sheriff’s office had been called to arrest the individual for “trespassing on private property“ when riding on the trail. After being cited, Sean asked if would be able to follow through on his European travel plans upon graduation. The Klickitat County Prosecutor’s Office assured him he would, and then after he had left for Europe, they proceeded to prosecute him.

Once Charles Montange of the Rails to Trails Conservancy was notified by Sean’s parents, Charles quickly had the case dismissed. On August, 1, 2002, approximately 15 local residents, including myself, were invited to a meeting in Klickitat to be briefed on the legal situation and case resolution. Following the meeting, we decided it was an especially nice to day to hike the Klickitat Trail.

The Confrontation Phase
August 1, 2002 to November 18, 2002

That August 1st afternoon, we parked our cars at Pitt, and started hiking down the trail, towards Lyle. As we hiked, we removed the numerous impediments to trail users placed by Trail opponents including “NO TREASPASSING” and “BEWARE OF DOG” signs and steel cables stretched across the trail. See photos.

We walked to the new concrete bridge over Logging Camp Creek ( approximately two miles from Pitt) and then returned. On the return trip, a trail opponent spotted us while driving SR 142 and began honking. When we approached the section of the Trail adjacent to a Trail opponent property, we could see a Deputy Sheriff’s vehicle and the Trail opponent discussing the situation behind some trees and bushes. Then the Trail opponent approached us and tried to engage in a conversation, apparently to entice us off the Trail and on to her private property, where we could be cited for trespassing. We simply ignored her and continued hiking toward Pitt. When we got to Pitt, there was a confrontation between the Deputy Sheriff, the Trail opponent and Charles Montange, and no citations were issued. We got to our vehicles and left, feeling emboldened by the new attitude demonstrated by the Sheriff’s office respecting the public’s right to use the trail right of way.

With this successful experience, it dawned on me that we needed to borrow methods used by Critical Mass in Seattle, San Francisco, Portland and Moab ( and probably other places as well). I started organizing monthly hikes on the first Saturday of the month and we made sure we had at least 15 to 20 hike participants. We also carried cameras, took notes and picked up litter. One of the reasons we held the hikes on first Saturdays was to attend and support the first Saturday Lyle Lions’ Community Center Pancake Breakfasts. We would often have a table of 10 or more showing up at 7:30 or 8:00 am. Some hikers and riders, including myself, are still showing up for this all-the-pancakes-you -can-eat affair.

September 7th, 2002, was our first First Saturday Hike from Lyle to Fisher Hill Road and back. We knew this would not be a contentious section of Trail as there were no abutting Trail opponents, only the Klickitat River and SR 142. But it did give us an easy hike to practice our plan and symbolized the first step in taking back the entire 31-mile trail, even if only 2 miles at a time. The Klickitat County Economic Development Director had learned of our hike and he and his son participated. He asked how we would feel about letting the County take over responsibility for developing and managing the Trail. The suggestion met with muted enthusiasm. There were a number of important lessons learned on this hike, specifically that having dogs and smoking on our hikes created problems. Both issues had been raised by Trail opponents. Folks arrived for the hike with their dogs, and soon after leaving the trail head, unleashed them. Soon the dogs were running up, down and off the trail right of way, interacting with Trail neighbor dogs, hikers and dogs of other hikers. It became apparent there were just too many issues and uncertainties resulting when we allowed dogs on our organized Klickitat Trail hikes. Smoking too had its problems, including other hikers being made nauseas by the smoke, and secondly, cigarettes being a source of fire in this very fire vulnerable area. Simply forbidding dogs and smoking on our hikes simplified matters greatly for future hikes and hike leaders.

For our October 5th event we planned multiple activities including a mountain bike ride from Fisher Hill Road to Pitt, a hike from Pitt to south, and a nature hike with a focus of flowers and birds, from Fisher Hill Road up stream. In addition, a few of us rode mountain bikes from Pitt to Fisher Hill Road following the hike. A total of 33 participated and with all these events taking place simultaneously, and so openly, it really felt like we had reclaimed the Trail for the public. At Pitt (actually about 100 yards downstream from SR 142) Trail opponents, had placed a concertina /wire fence across the Trail and one Trail opponent said “over my dead body“ would we be continuing down the Trail. He also told us that his major concerns were defecation and fornication on the Trail.

This hike also provided another memorable visual. A Trail opponent, a local fishing guide, was in his boat with a client as we approached. It appeared his client had a “fish on,” but the guide was so upset upon seeing us walking by, he ignored his “city-slicker -looking-client”, stood up in the boat, and began “preaching” to us about why he had moved here to get away from city folks like us. Most of us were either from Klickitat, Lyle, or similar sized towns. On our return trip (we only walked down stream to the abandoned vehicle about 2 miles or so from SR 142), the guide was still with his client, but by this time his attitude had changed, and he waved to us as though he were a homecoming queen in a parade, asking us all how we were doing. It seemed there had been more than one religious experience that morning.

After the hike ended at Pitt, a few of us rode the entire section from Pitt to Fisher Hill Road. We crossed paths with the north bound mountain biking group lead by Pam Springer. They had encountered goat head problems (a burr that punctures tires), so were a bit slowed up. When the south bound biking group arrived at the gates across the Trail near the Native American fishing area, we were greeted by Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) enforcement officers. Apparently, Trail opponents had called them and reported our group trespassing. As I arrived at their location on the Trail, we exchanged pleasantries and I was much relieved to know that they had not bought into the divisive tactics of the Trail opponents.

One of the interesting aspects of this outing was the “egging” of a Trail user’s car parked at Pitt. Apparently the car owners were late getting to the trailhead, so missed the group departure. When they did arrive, their dog was interacting with a neighboring dog in an unfriendly way, or at least the Trail neighbors dog owners perceived so, because it was the only car among many that was “egged”.

With Fall/Winter weather fast approaching and notice of interim Trail closure by State Parks, we decided to increase the frequency of our hikes and rides, so we planned our next hike for October 19th, from Pitt to Klickitat. The interesting aspect of this outing was even though our hike had been publicly advertised, as going from Pitt to Klickitat, Trail opponents thought mistakenly we were simply repeating the same Pitt south hike we had done two weeks earlier. As we assembled at the Pitt parking area, we noticed multiple 4 x4 pickup trucks and people gathering and blocking the Trail on the other side of SR 142. We looked at them, they looked at us. Finally, as it came time for us to start our hike, we did, moving in the opposite direction from the trail blockage. Even hours after our successful hike was over, there were still a few opponents stationed at their Trail block waiting to confront us. It appeared to me to have been the largest Trail opponent group assembled to challenge the public’s right to use the Trail, and as fate would have it, the challenge was untested. Never before nor after, have such a large group of Trail opponents emerged on the Trail.

On November 2nd, we hiked the “dead end” Wahkiacus section, from Schilling Road (off Horseshoe Bend Road) to the removed bridge near Suburbia ( SR 142 mile post 14). This was a pretty straightforward hike, as the abutting property owners are non-hostile government agencies and the hostile Trail opponent at the intersection of Horseshoe Road and Schilling had moved, having sold his home to the Yakama fisheries operation. Following the scheduled hike, several of the hikers, hiked again the first two miles of Trail south from Pitt, without incident.

The Upper Swale Canyon Trail portion was hiked the following Saturday, November 9th, and included Kathy Durbin and Mike Cohea, writer and photographer respectively, for The Columbian, the Vancouver newspaper. With Pam Springer and Ira Martin riding the entire Swale Canyon section from Harms Road to Schilling Road, we felt we had nominally reclaimed the entire trail for public use prior to the November 19th public meeting in Lyle convened by the Washington State Parks Director.

On November 19th, a meeting was held in Lyle by the new Washington State Parks Director Rex Derr to discuss the potential closure of the Klickitat Trail. Attended by 150-200 people, mostly local residents, Trail proponents outnumbered Trail opponent at least three to one. When the meeting wound down, there was a distinct feeling in the air that public opinion had dramatically shifted in favor of the Trail and intimidation and threats had lost their effectiveness. A new day was dawning, as Trail proponents were energized and continuously creating strategies and solutions for addressing the needs and concerns of Trail users, Trail opponents, Washington State Parks and the U.S. Forest Service.

Trail Administration
November 19, 2002 to the Present

After the November 19th meeting, Washington State Parks closed the Klickitat Trail, ostensibly for public safety and to give emotions in the community a chance to calm down. I too had received phone calls the night before organized hikes from a County department head beseeching me to cancel the next day’s activities for public safety reasons. Who can argue against public safety? Well, we did, when it came to attempts to compromise the public’s right to use the public right of way. It appeared with Washington State Parks closing the Trail to review the situation, there was some chance they would abandon the Trail completely. State Parks funding was so bleak that they were relinquishing parks in other parts of the state, so it didn’t make sense to them to invest in a park in a remote part of the state where the primary local political institution, the Klickitat County Commission, was opposed to the Trail and berating Forest Service and Parks employees during public hearings for continuing with Klickitat Trail plans. The most vocal County Commissioner would harp “You agencies just don’t seem to get it that we don’t want the Klickitat Trail”.

It was with this background that the Washington State Parks Director recommended to the Washington State Park Commission in the winter of 2002-03, that the Klickitat Trail no longer be under State Parks management. As I think back on the November 19th public hearing, I can see that its purpose may have been to provide the basis for abandoning the Trail. It was apparent that the primary focus was limiting the length of presentations (two minutes each) rather than the presentation’s content. I, as one of the lead organizers of the Trail events, had developed a presentation that ended up taking four and one-half minutes. When I reached the two-minute mark, I was told my time was up and I must sit down. I said I had only a bit more to go, and then someone in the audience offered their allotted time to me. When I was nearing completion, with only 30 seconds to go, once again, I was cut off and once again, a different person in the audience who had signed up to speak offered her time so I could finish.

Amongst our Trail advocates core group, there was considerable unease about the motives, intent and sincerity of State Parks closing the Trail, however we felt our brightest long term hope was in partnership with State Parks, so we cooperated with the interim closure.

At this point, in early January 2003, the big issue was whether we should incorporate or not as a way to facilitate a partnership with State Parks. Our goal was simply to have the trail remain open for public use under State Parks auspices, and we would do our best to keep the trail clean, provide rest rooms to address the human waste issue, and undertake whatever minor improvements (signage, removal of safety hazards, etc) our limited budget would offer.

At the same time, the Washington State Parks Commission was considering the Director’s recommendation to abandon the Klickitat Trail. Two caravans of trail supporters drove to Olympia to testify. Several presentations were given by members of our group, other trail groups, and horse and cycling organizations to the Washington State Parks Commission. The enthusiasm of the supporters led the Commissioner to brainstorm a solution during their deliberations. One commissioner asked Jim Minick, serving as spokesman for the yet to be incorporated Klickitat Trail Conservancy, to pledge $5,000 and volunteer support to Washington State Parks to defray costs associated with the Klickitat Trail. Jim, backed by Trail supporters attending the Commission meeting, agreed and the Commissioners voted unanimously to retain the Klickitat Trail.

Following these actions by State Parks, the Klickitat Trail Conservancy was incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Fund raising began, more hikes and rides were held, a Board of Directors and officers were established, a web site created, four portable toilets were provided (some on a seasonal basis), quarterly newsletters were published and a major social event was held in the late summer of 2003 to celebrate the successful rebirth and life of the Trail. In attendance at the Klickitat community facility were Congressman Brian Baird, Friends of the Columbia Gorge founder and matriarch Nancy Russell, and Executive Director Kevin Gorman. In all, more the 70 people attended and gave their brief personal trail accounts.

The year between August 2002 and August 2003 was critical. We received a grant from the Kongsgaard-Goldman Foundation that bolstered our confidence, our financial situation and provided for organization building. Since then, the Klickitat Trail Conservancy has continued its original previously mentioned activities and in addition adopted a section of SR 142 strategically located with views of the Trail across the Klickitat River, and created and distributed 3,500 copies of a Trail map which was sponsored by local businesses and organizations. We have received additional grants and awards, and most importantly the Klickitat Trail has served as a reminder to all, that by working and hiking together, we can overcome threats, intimidation and hostility at a time and place when those attitudes were allowed to prevail.

At the same time that Klickitat Trail Conservancy was experiencing significant growth, the U.S. Forest Service was considering potential management of a portion of the trail. Washington State Parks and Klickitat Trail Conservancy were interested in the Forest Service taking on as much responsibility as possible. As the Forest Service went through a public hearing process, the Scenic Area manager originally expressed interest in managing only the first two miles of the trail (from Lyle to the Fisher Hill Bridge) as those were the only two miles in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Trail supporters then worked to convince the Forest Service to manage another six miles up to the community of Pitt as that was the boundary of the Wild & Scenic segment of the Klickitat River (a designation provided under the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act). The Forest Service showed interest in that, so Klickitat Trail Conservancy pushed to have the management extended to the community of Klickitat as it is a recovery timber-dependent town and the Forest Service had a history of working with transitioning communities. When the Forest Service received a letter from the Klickitat Community Council asking them to manage the Trail into their community, the Forest Service extended its original thinking again.
On February 22, 2006, the US Forest Service formally signed the Cooperating Agreement with Washington State Parks to manage the first 13 miles of the Klickitat Trail.

Three acts of violence have occurred which resulted in judicial proceedings during this otherwise benign “Administrative” phase of the Trail. First, on May 16th, 2004, a trail opponent who lived on SR 142, accosted 2 high school students parked along SR 142, as they were conducting a high school biology project dealing with cattle grazing in riparian areas. He was convicted of assault with a shot gun, sentenced to 90 days in jail, and fined $1000 and assessed $110 costs. In January, 2005, a trail opponent who lived along the trail south of Pitt, pleaded no contest to the charge of negligent driving of a trail user stemming from an incident that occurred in July, 2004. On May 7th, 2006, a trail opponent who lives in Swale Canyon, was charged with reckless endangerment – a gross misdemeanor after shooting and killing a trail user’s dog in the presence of the dog’s owners who were hiking the Trail. After a year of numerous delays and rescheduling, and a change of entry level prosecutors, the case was dismissed without prejudice in April, 2007, on the prosecutor’s motion.

The Trail and the public’s access to it are worth defending in their own right, but equally important for our community was how we dealt with the intimidation and threats of violence from Trail opponents.

The history of the Klickitat Trail is still being written, and many activities and events will take place on it over the years to come, as funding for trail improvements is forthcoming. But now is a good time to stop, reflect, remember and write the events of the most recent years.