Help save the John Wayne Pioneer Trail

By Ted Blaszak, Guest columnist

I am from Tekoa, Washington (population 843). We are your neighbors to the east.

Though we are a small farming community on the Washington-Idaho border we are connected to many bigger cities by the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. If you were to leave your house this summer and get on a bike, horse, or sturdy hiking boots, you could cross almost the entire state on a path with no cars and end up in our town.

The trail is 285 mile long, a 100-foot wide ribbon of beauty extending through lush forests, dramatic scab lands and the vibrant pastures of the Palouse. Each step offers peace, tranquility and gracious vistas. The John Wayne Pioneer Trail is one of our longest trails.

Last year, in sneaky underhanded move state Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, and state Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, used a capital budget amendment to try to close a 135-mile section of the trail in Eastern Washington and give that land to 200 adjacent landowners without public notice or hearings. They also happen to be Tekoa’s representatives in Olympia.

Some 6,000-acres of the trail — which the state in 1985 paid $3 million for the abandoned Milwaukee Road rail line — was nearly taken from bicyclists, hikers, horse riders, Boy Scouts, geologists, tourists, and historical advocates, without a single conversation ever held with any of them.

Fortunately, the legislators did not read their own proviso carefully and a miraculous typo prevented the implementation of the land grab. In the ensuing months there has been a public outcry over the shennanigans and 18 Washington cities from Spokane to Sequim have passed resolutions asking the Legislature to help fund and maintain the trail.

State lawmakers will again consider the fate of the trail in January when the State Parks Department is expected to make a capitol budget request.

But like children caught in the cookie jar, Schoesler and a handful of land owners continue to offer excuses and fight against the trail in hopes of its closure. At first Rep. Schmick explained that he “didn’t think this issue warranted the attention of 147 legislators.” Other reasons given for the midnight grab included liability, litter, weeds, and rattlesnakes.

Their new tactic is to “fiscal” it to death. For every trestle repair, trailhead, or water pump the argument will be, “It’s a waste of money, and ‘you’re under-pricing’ repairs.” But the price tag is low compared to other infrastructure work done in Washington and has an excellent return on the investment not only for our state tax base but particularly for several small towns along the trail that are suffering. Tekoa’s population has declined 40 percent over the last 40 years. Last year we had three restaurants now were down to two.

Further, by repairing the trail with work phased in over the years we can avoid a great impact on our state budget and allow the trail to begin generating income immediately. If you’re a cyclist, trail user, horse owner, or just appreciate the beauty of our state, we need help:

  • Ask your city council to pass a resolution in support of the trail.
  • Spread the news to family and friends, perhaps write a letter to the editor.
  • Email or call your state legislators, especially Republican caucus members, and ask for their support to protect and fund the trail.

We are only a small circle of supporters and have been unable to attract any large organizational so all you can do would be very much appreciated.

I would also caution that I fear the failed budget maneuver reveals a deeper fissure in our state’s policy toward park land and our democratic process. We should be concerned and reexamine why funding for public land is so politically dependent in Olympia and vulnerable to the power of the budget proviso.

Ted Blaszak lives in Tekoa and serves on the city council. He also is president of the Tekoa Trail and Trestle Association. For more information, email tekoatrailandtrestle@gmail.