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Sign language 

by David Bond


Users of the soon-to-be-opened "Rails to Trails" recreational path through North Idaho could face some scary warnings along its 72-mile course from the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation in Plummer to the town of Mullan.


As proposed, signs posted along the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes will warn users not to breathe the air, drink the water or eat wild plants.


They will say, in part: "Exposure to heavy metals along this trail corridor can cause health problems. Young children and pregnant women are at highest risk. Heavy metals include lead and cadmium. These are taken into the body in two ways: By swallowing metals in soil and sediments; and, by breathing metals in airborne soil and dust."


The sign language is currently out for public comment. Bill Scudder, Idaho Parks and Recreation manager of the Cataldo Mission and of the trail, says the involved agencies hope to finalize the language by the end of this month. But don't expect any quick changes.


"They [the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, the Panhandle Health District, the federal EPA and the Coeur d'Alene Tribe] spent a year and a half coming up with this wording," Scudder says.


"This is goddamned dumb," grumbles Joe Peak, owner of the popular Enaville Resort along the trail's path and a 23-year resident of the Coeur d'Alene River. "Are you not supposed to breathe if you're a pregnant woman or a young child?"


Peak has been an advocate of the rails-to-trails project, which runs by his resort at the confluence of the north and south forks of the Coeur d'Alene River beside the abandoned Union Pacific Railroad right of way. It is expected to open sometime this year.


The 72-mile asphalt-paved trail is an attempt by the agencies to contain heavy metal sulfides that fell off ore cars during their journey from Silver Valley mines to the rail-head in Spokane over the course of the past century.


"This trail is not just a trail, but part of a unique solution to environmental problems," continue the sign's proposed language. "The asphalt of the trail and the gravel barriers along it serves to isolate the contaminants. It is important that you follow trail rules so that you are not exposed to contaminants. If you understand the rules it will be easy to enjoy the beauty of the area and protect your health!"


The signs will give assurances to trail users that, provided they stay on the asphalt, they are "protect(ed) from contaminants in the outlying areas." Trail rules also include the admonition not to shoot from or across the right of way, and another to "wash everything that comes in contact with the soil, for example toys, clothes, etc."


Not exactly a tourism promotional bell-ringer, says Peak, who was called to testify in the federal suit against North Idaho mining companies by the EPA, the Tribe and U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior in Boise two weeks ago. He wore a marathon runner's T-shirt to court.


"They asked me if I thought I was healthy. I told them I'd just run a 26.2-mile marathon, and that my kids had graduated summa cum laude from Gonzaga and Lewis-Clark State College," Peak says.


"The solution and the stigma to environmental problems up here are worse than the problem itself. The fishing's fine, the recreation is fine, the kids are fine, but people think we're deaf, dumb and mentally retarded up here," he adds.


The trail itself has come under fire from a group of residents along the Coeur d'Alene River, who claim its construction is an inexpensive cop-out for the Union Pacific. Rather than remove a century's worth of railroad spills, the trail merely covers them up. Bankrupt Gulf Resources, former owner of Bunker Hill, once was the UP's biggest customer.


Calling itself CART (Citizens Against Rails to Trails), the river group represents property owners -- many of them descendants of the area's original homesteaders.


They claim the rights of way their ancestors deeded were for the express purpose of building, operating and maintaining a railroad, and that were the railroad to abandon the right of way, the strip would revert to their ownership.


CART is behind similar groups in other parts of the country who have won court decisions returning the rights of way to property owners. CART's suit to block the 72-mile trail -- more than three-fourths of which runs through private property -- currently is before the U.S. Court of Appeals.
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