"Trails" — the word taps childhood memories of hiking in the woods over a soft pine-needle-strewn path. Or a dim recollection of cowboy actor Roy Rogers on top of a giant horse singing "Happy Trails." Or "Hi-ho Silver," the Lone Ranger rides again on the lone prairie — in a cloud of dust.
But trails have grown up in the modern era and left the cloud of dust behind. With the conversion of hundreds of miles of railroad rails into asphalt trails, North Idaho has become a bicycler's trail heaven. This transformation has happened in the last 40 years, under the leadership of several far-sighted leaders.
The granddaddy trail of them all has been the Washington-Idaho Centennial Trail, designed to recognize the century mark of the state of Washington in 1989 and that of Idaho in 1990.
As early as 1908, the fabled Olmsted Brothers, designers of New York's Central Park, recommended Spokane build a parkway to Idaho. Years later in 1963, while creating Expo, Spokane's World's Fair, urban planner King Cole initiated a movement to build the Spokane Centennial Trail to the Idaho border.
When shown the route of the proposed Centennial Trail connecting Idaho and Washington, Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus was quoted as saying, "50 years from now, people will look at this trail route and think; what vision you people had when you put this trail in."
Still, the Idaho side of the Centennial Trail almost didn't happen. It survived a tortured run of last-chance lucky breaks grabbed up by persistent trail supporters who never gave up on the dream goal — to connect Idaho and Washington with a well-built and maintained trail for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Retired Coeur d'Alene City Parks Director Doug Eastwood played a pivotal role in delivering the Centennial Trail on the Idaho side. Doug remembers all the hurdles trail advocates faced along the way.
A key trail opportunity presented itself in 1974 when Burlington Northern Railway ceased using the railroad bridge crossing the Spokane River. The bridge was almost sold to another buyer when a clever lawyer cast doubts about the legitimacy of the sale. He cited a requirement in the Idaho code that public bodies have the right of first refusal when railways are abandoned. Strangely, no one has been able to locate that item in the code, but the bait-and-switch worked.
For help acquiring the bridge, Eastwood and his cohorts turned to Sandy Patano, then aide to then-Congressman Larry Craig, who intervened, and Burlington Northern agreed to sell the bridge to the Trail Foundation for $180,000. Trail advocates scrounged to find the money. State Parks Director Yvonne Ferrell squeezed it into the parks budget. The deal was done.
Former County Commissioner Evalyn Adams helped with fundraising for the trail along the way. She says that support came also from Sen. James McClure and Speaker of the House Tom Foley.
I remember attending a hearing on the proposed trail in Post Falls where some local residents violently opposed the trail going past the schools. Opponents maintained children would be attacked by thugs, transients and pedophiles, and that property values would plummet. Sounder heads predicted correctly that the trail would be an asset passing through the city and that property values would climb because of the values the trail represented — healthy exercise, connectivity with neighborhoods and introduction of a strip of attractive parkway.
Horse trails, goat trails, retired railroad rails — each of these represents a form of transportation. We need to think beyond trails as just providing healthy recreation. As we become more urbanized, trails will provide a chosen avenue for kids of all ages to get where they want to go. Trails provide freedom from traffic and parking headaches and assure safety for bicycle riders.
Currently, the city of Coeur d'Alene is considering a proposal that would reroute the Centennial Trail as it runs through the recently developed Riverstone neighborhood. The proposal before the city would give a developer space to build a row of 17 two-story houses along the river, cutting off the view of the river from the trail and narrowing the trail from 15 to 12-feet wide. The plans suggest a retaining wall may be necessary, which would create a "shy" distance of three additional feet for a bicyclist. That would reduce the usable trail width to 9 feet wide, an unacceptable, unsafe distance. Besides, it doesn't make sense to reduce trail access in an expanding neighborhood.
In addition, many of the people now living in Riverstone are older, some dealing with walkers and wheelchairs. Anything over a 2 percent grade is a challenge. The trail is their neighborhood walkway, which they should be able to use comfortably.
The Centennial Trail was the reward for a hard fought, well-played crusade. The public shouldn't sit back and take the trail for granted. The battle isn't over yet. The proposal before the city to reroute and diminish a portion of the trail should be rejected. ♦