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Great Redwood Trail supporters vow fight against coal train on the North Coast

A section of the proposed Great Redwood Trail route
Charles Gandy
Courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
A section of the proposed Great Redwood Trail route

Northern California lawmakers and trail supporters are fiercely opposing a proposal to haul coal on a railroad line that’s expected to become a 320-mile -trail for hiking and biking.

The trail’s master planning process begins around the same time and is expected to take up to four years to complete.

The Great Redwood Trail would run from the San Francisco Bay area to Humboldt Bay. But a Wyoming company wants to haul coal on the northern segment of the line for export to Asia.

The north stretch of the rail line was once used for freight hauling and managed by a state agency, the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA). But rail use stopped in the late 1990s due to the financial challenges of maintaining the infrastructure in rugged environments like the Eel River Canyon.

More than two decades later, the NCRA has agreed to railbanking, a federal process that allows vacant rail lines to be used for other purposes.

Loleta railroad tunnel along the Great Redwood Trail route
Emily Sinkhorn, courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Loleta railroad tunnel along the Great Redwood Trail route

The trail conversion is supported by state legislation but the Wyoming company, North Coast Railroad Company , LLC, has thrown a curveball with a federal application to redevelop the rail line and use it for coal transport.

During an early December town hall meeting California Senator Mike McGuire vowed to fight the proposal to ship coal from Utah, Wyoming and Montana through the North Coast.

“Here’s what I say to them – we are not gonna let that happen, we’re gonna put a nail, a nail in the coffin of coal.” McGuire said.

The proposed Great Redwood Trail Route.
The Great Redwood Trail Alliance
The proposed Great Redwood Trail Route.

Opponents to the coal bid also include North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman and McGuire assured that “we are gonna fight like hell and we are gonna win” the battle against coal transport.

McGuire’s Great Redwood Trail Act became state law last fall. It dissolved the NCRA and transforms it into a trail agency managed by the state’s Coastal Conservancy.

McGuire has also introduced Senate Bill 307, which prohibits state funding for upgrading the rail line and creating a coal port terminal at Humboldt Bay.

The coal company is seeking a federal loan and in a letter sent last fall to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Huffman and Congressman Mike Thompson described coal export as “a disastrous project” and urged rejection of any federal support for it.

Counties and cities throughout the rail corridor are also rallying against the coal plan.

Last October, Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors approved banning any kind of coal-related activity. “This horse is dead and the hole’s already dug,” said Humboldt Supervisor Rex Bohn.

Meanwhile the trail has gained a range of support and state funding.

During the town hall, McGuire said state’s budget includes “significant, groundbreaking items” for the trail.

They include funding for paying off a remaining chunk of the NCRA’s $11 million debt and $10.5 million for “staffing up” and other costs related to a trail master plan process.

The budget also allocates $500 million for “projects that will help us fight our climate crisis and advance non-motorized trails of statewide significance – just like the Great Redwood Trial,” McGuire continued.

According to a state legislative report released last month, development of the trail will cost over $1 billion. That doesn’t include “unknown, but potentially significant, environmental remediation costs that may be required prior to project construction.”

But McGuire said the budget allocations are “huge news and a game changer.”

A hearing on the Great Redwood Trail and the competing coal train is expected to be held by federal regulators in the first half of 2022.