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CZ Trail committee members disagree over how to balance recreation and safety

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - A trailhead of Crown Zellerbach Trail is accessible from Scappoose-Vernonia Highway, but some say vehicles routinely speed on the highway, making it unsafe for pedestrian access in some areas.Members of a recently convened Crown Zellerbach Trail advisory committee say the former logging road turned public trail has the potential to bolster Columbia County's tourism economy and be the crown jewel of recreation in Oregon. But some say more needs to be done first to increase pedestrian safety and limit clearcutting along the trail route.

Columbia County acquired the former logging road that stretches from Scappoose to Vernonia for use as a public access recreational trail. For over a decade, the county has slowly worked to plan and design trail improvements. In 2016, a dedication ceremony was held as an official unveiling of the popular hiking, cycling and horseback trail. Last summer, a CZ Trail advisory committee was convened to plan future improvements to the trail.

The seven-member committee meets every two months and has already mapped out a spot for an equestrian park in the Chapman area.

PMG FILE PHOTO - JJ Duehren walks her dog along the CZ Trail in 2018. JJ Duehren co-chairs the committee. Duehren is an avid CZ Trail user who runs an equestrian rescue organization. She also manages a CZ Trail information page via Facebook.

Duehren says she was eager to help plan the future of the trail, but was dismayed during recent committee discussions about clearcutting trees all the way up to the trail, and not prioritizing pedestrian safety. She points to the death of James Spencer, who died of injuries he sustained in January after he was struck by a vehicle on Scappoose-Vernonia Highway near Wikstrom Road.

"I have real concerns with some of our committee's activities, including passing on an approved pedestrian crossing on Scappoose-Vernonia and Cater Road," Duehren says. "This crossing is especially important due to the blind curves in either direction and the fact that so many people speed on the highway."

Duehren says the trail provides unique access to the outdoors, particularly for disabled folks like herself, but cars and trucks routinely speed on Scappoose-Vernonia Highway, making it unsafe in some areas for pedestrians to access the trailheads.

"I think it's notable they want to create more parts along the trail to make it more accessible, but if it's not safe, it's futile," Duehren says, regarding pedestrian safety along the trail.

Like Duehren, many see the trail as an opportunity to bring in more outdoor recreation visitors to the county and spur more businesses in the hospitality industry.

"If we continue to promote parks and recreation in rural areas, there is durable economic stability there," says Joel Haugen, a trails enthusiast and Scappoose city councilor."

Haugen and Duehren say, in addition to safety upgrades, the trail needs a buffer zone around it to preserve the natural habitat that attracts people to the trail.

The desire for a larger buffer zone around the trail may be hard to achieve.

The trail itself is owned by the county, but most of the area immediately surrounding the trail is owned by timber giant Weyerhaeuser, which still conducts active logging operations on the land.

Tony Hyde, a former Columbia County commissioner who now chairs the CZ Trail committee, says not only would he not support any efforts to curtail logging near the trail, but characterizes timber harvests as crucial to "proper forest management."

"Unequivocally, absolutely, we should allow logging along that trail," Hyde said Wednesday. "We have easements with Weyerhaeuser. ... If it hadn't been for logging, that trail wouldn't exist."

Historical and planning documents from the county indicate a desire to allow multiple types of access, with an emphasis on "stewardship."

"The trail will be designed to avoid impacts to sensitive resource areas including wetlands, riparian areas, and cultural resources," a design concepts draft plan states.

County officials say creating a buffer may be unrealistic.

"We can't buffer any more than what our own property is," says Casey Garrett, facilities and parks director for Columbia County. "We don't have the legal right to tell people they don't have the right to cut down trees on their own property."

Garrett also handles the coordination of the CZ Trail committee.

He says the county has encouraged timber harvests all the way up to the trail to prevent a line of lone-standing trees along the trail that may be vulnerable to heavy winds.

"The committee actually came to the agreement to encourage logging all the way up to that trail, because what's happened in the past is, they've left small buffers and it's created problems in the past, because the forest creates a wind break, and in high winds, the trees fall over," Garrett says.

"They don't have the trees behind them to protect them from the wind, so they're more apt to fall over."

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