Plans for the Umatilla River Trails Project are beginning to take shape.
“With the support that has come along for it, we’re moving. This thing’s got legs,” Umatilla County commissioner Bill Elfering said.
The project would connect Umatilla, Hermiston, Stanfield and Echo through a network of recreational trails, which the county released possible routes for at four open house workshops last week. They hope to develop a concept plan early next year.
Using colored stickers, attendees were able to place unofficial votes for the different options.
“Nothing is set in concrete yet; we know some of these routes won’t be possible,” Elfering said at the Hermiston open house, which took place Thursday at the Hermiston Community Center.
The county is hoping to keep the string of trails as close to the river as possible, but some of the different route alternatives offer other possibilities, including trails that would run parallel with train tracks, highways or irrigation canals.
Planners hope the trail system will attract tourists to the western Umatilla County area, increase river access and promote exercise.
One option for the Umatilla to Hermiston portion of the trail system, for instance, would connect the downtown districts of the two cities with a trail between the railroad tracks and Umatilla River Road.
In another, the Hermiston to Stanfield trail would be routed south of downtown Hermiston, and later adjacent to the south side of the Feed Canal where it would open up downtown Stanfield. Others would utilize pre-existing trails like the ones at Hermiston’s Riverfront Park.
Railroad right-of-ways are owned by Union Pacific and other areas like the Feed Canal are owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamations. Umatilla County planning director, Robert Waldher, said that conversations are ongoing between both entities.
“Cost may weigh on our decision when it comes to preferred route,” Waldher said at Thursday’s meeting.
He noted most of the project would take place on public lands.
“There have been some private landowners who have come up to us and expressed an interest in using their land,” he said.
Kelly Nobles of Umatilla has offered for the county to develop some of his family’s property for the Umatilla to Hermiston portion of the trail. A route plan involving his land would use a bridge to cross the Umatilla River and eventually connect with Hermiston’s Oxbow Trail system.
At the meetings last week, people were also invited to suggest what kind of trail material should line the paths— pavement, gravel, a dual surface or a ‘natural’ unpaved surface— as well as what sort of interpretive opportunities might line the trails. Some people suggested the trail provide information about local history.
Waldher said that the county has also been in conversation with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Board of Trustees about the project.
“The Native Americans have had trails throughout our region for thousands of years,” he said. “The (confederated tribes) will probably play a role when it comes to permitting if they have environmental concerns. When we get into that phase, a consultation will need to occur with them,” he said.
Waldher, Elfering and Stephanie Stroud— a National Park Service technical expert from Seattle, who is helping initiate the project— all emphasized the same idea at Thursday’s meeting in Hermiston: it shouldn’t cost residents a dime.
“What we don’t want to do is raise taxes,” Stroud said.
For the planners, this means coming up with different ways to secure grant funding and support. Accentuating the health benefits of a recreational trail, for instance, or providing interpretive information along it about wildlife and key pollinators, could attract funding.
Waldher noted that maintenance costs could be curbed with the help of area volunteers and other types of grant funding. He said that at some of the open house workshops, people expressed concerns about transient people coming through the trail areas or about people leaving behind trash.
“Our hope would be that by opening these areas up, people would take pride and ownership and not be trespassing,” he said. “I think some of the folks in the smaller towns see this as an opportunity to increase business and tourism.”
He said that using the input from the four meetings, the county will put together a concept plan by late winter in 2020 or early spring. The county also currently has an online survey available to residents at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/NZFF7RM.
“My hope is that we use the concept plan to be able to acquire those funds. If we don’t access them, other people will,” Waldher said.
Tamra Mabbott, community development director at the City of Umatilla, noted that the city is working on its own city-wide trail project currently, some of which may eventually be utilized in the regional River Trail project.
“Hermiston has a wonderful trail system already,” she said. “I would love for people to remember that different trails and parts of this project will be developed over time as funding is available.”
She noted that the city has plans to improve other recreational sites, like the marina, and possibly incorporate a new vendor and events, which could be a draw for people traversing the regional trail system.
“I think this could impact the city in a positive way,” she said. “It’s symbiotic.”
In 2018, the county received a technical assistance grant from the National Park Service, administered by the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance program. The grant is funding Stroud’s expertise for the project.
The plan will have to be adopted by all four cities before the county can apply for funding needed to engineer the project.