“Imagine a jogging and bicycling path extending from urban Vancouver to the northeastern part of the county, or a commuter railroad serving passengers as it did earlier in this century.
Those visionary ideas are being weighed by Clark County officials in the wake of announced plans to sell the Longview, Portland and Northern (LP&N) railroad serving International Paper Company’s Chelatchie plywood mill.”
— Article in the June 17, 1979, edition of The Columbian
BATTLE GROUND — Construction has started on the first segment of the 33-mile Chelatchie Prairie Rail with Trail project, 32 years after a trail was suggested by public officials who’ve long been out of office.
On Tuesday, a crew from NW Construction General Contracting, Inc. of Battle Ground continued clearing the way for what will be a paved trail 1 mile long and 10 feet wide.
Work began last month on the segment, which will run from the entrance road inside Battle Ground Lake State Park southwest along the county-owned railroad tracks.
In April, county commissioners awarded a $406,800 contract to NW Construction.
Commissioners approved the Chelatchie Prairie Rail with Trail Corridor plan in 2008.
Members of the public who attended open houses identified the Battle Ground Lake State Park segment as the best place to start.
At first, the idea was to build a 2.8-mile trail from Battle Ground Lake State Park to Fairgrounds Park in downtown Battle Ground, but environmental considerations (wetlands, steep slopes and sensitive wildlife habitat) priced the project beyond the $728,600 budget, said project manager Troy Pierce of Clark County Public Works.
The trail will be extended to Fairgrounds Park when more money becomes available, either through grants or partnerships, Pierce said. The mile-long trail will be open to the public this fall, he added.
Clark County Commissioners Steve Stuart and Marc Boldt have long advocated for the trail. Commissioner Tom Mielke, whose district includes the trail, did not want to accept a state grant used for part of the project. He has expressed concern about what property owners who live near the railroad will think about a public trail.
While Stuart was only 8 years old when officials first envisioned the trail, he still has spent years on the project.
In 2005, as a member of a state panel that decided how to spend federal transportation enhancement grants, he secured $230,000 to study the rail corridor.
“It’s a mile, but it’s a significant mile,” Stuart said of the work under way.
Once extended from Fairground Parks, the trail will create a safe, nonmotorized way to get to Battle Ground Lake State Park from downtown Battle Ground, said Stuart, who has walked along the railroad (a portion currently not used by trains) between the two parks.
“It’s a beautiful path, and it’s a view of that area I wouldn’t get to see otherwise,” Stuart said.
The Chelatchie Prairie Rail with Trail Corridor plan recommended guidelines for building a trail along the railroad that would “connect major recreational destinations such as Burnt Bridge Creek Greenway, Battle Ground Lake State Park and Moulton Falls Regional Park.”
The plan designated the 33-mile trail as a potential “jewel” of Clark County, running diagonally from the Burnt Bridge Creek to Chelatchie Prairie.
Portions of the trail already exist, but the “jewel” has been waiting for years to be polished.
The county bought the Chelatchie Prairie railroad right of way in 1985. Officials have been wondering how to make the best use of it ever since.
Currently, the county leases the rail corridor for light-industrial rail commerce from Burnt Bridge Creek to south of Heisson, while the Battle Ground, Yacolt and Chelatchie Prairie Railroad Association operates excursion trains from Yacolt.
Lisa Goorjian, regional trail planner for Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation, said after crews finish the paved portion, volunteers from different organizations, including from the Clark County Executive Horse Council, will build an adjacent four-foot-wide soft-surface trail for horseback riders and joggers.
The goals, according to the 2008 plan, are to increase the rate of bicycling, walking and horseback riding in Clark County “by providing a safe and inviting trail.”
The rail corridor runs within one mile of 20 percent of the county’s population, according to the study, and less than one mile from 13 schools.
Vern Veysey, a former parks department employee who served two terms as a county commissioner and was one of three commissioners who decided to buy the railroad, said Tuesday that he’s pleased the vision is being realized.
“I feel proud to be part of that,” he said.
As for when the entire 33-mile trail would be completed, that depends on when the county can secure additional funding.