WILLITS, CA, 3/28/23 — Upwards of 75 Mendocino County residents headed to the Willits Community Center on Thursday to offer their thoughts on the Great Redwood Trail, an ambitious 316-mile connector from San Francisco to Humboldt Bay, the Willits portion of which is nearing its construction phase. Community members had the chance to engage in-person with Coastal Conservancy staff and consultants from the firms superintending the trail, sharing concerns and offering ideas for how the project could be best executed locally.
“I hope in my lifetime that it will be completed,” Louisa Morris of the California State Coastal Conservancy told The Mendocino Voice. “I’m close to 60, so I don’t know if that will happen, but I hope so. Our thinking is to start in the urban areas and have successes there, and then move out into connecting areas.”
Willits’ portion, a 1.6-mile Class 1 bicycle and pedestrian pathway, will be one of those early completed segments. Construction is expected to take place in 2024 and 2025 — permitting and right-of-way work is ongoing for the project that was first proposed in 2006, with a plan completed in 2012. One community member wrote on a sticky-note for feedback that they “love the idea of going from one end of Willits to the other without dealing with traffic.”
The touring meetings, of which Thursday’s was the second in Northern California, are meant to inform the Master Plan for the Great Redwood Trail, which will essentially act as a blueprint for development of smaller sections.
“Either a city or a locality will be responsible for implementing each segment,” explained Cristina Bejarano, a planner with the firm WRT Design which is at work on the Willits Rail-with-Trail section.
Bejarano enjoyed talking with Willits residents about the forthcoming trail, noting that several people were particularly excited about the connectivity the trail would provide to nearby creeks.
Shannon, a Redwood Valley resident, said she likes the idea of a local trail but is concerned about the risk of wildfire on less populated sections. She pointed out that county law enforcement and emergency response teams don’t necessarily have the bandwidth to take on dozens of people traversing the trail each day.
“We don’t have those peace officers to do that,” she said.
Shannon added that she would be more supportive of the trail if she was sure that most sections would utilize local labor for construction and hauling.
“My other question is, are they going to try to only employ local, or are they just going to go with the lowest bidder?” she said.
Morris explained that planners are trying to collect concerns like these early in the process, before finalizing the Master Plan in 2024.
“It’s really a very participatory process,” she said. “People in this community really know their community better than anyone, so they can look at the Great Redwood Trail alignment and tell us about things that they’d like to see.”
Many residents expressed concerns about the feasibility of traveling along more remote or unstable sections of the rail, such as in Dos Rios or near Spyrock Road. Planners anticipate that navigating the Eel River Canyon and its geomorphology, as well as its cultural significance, will be a challenge, but also presents an exciting opportunity.
“I met one young man from the Clarke [Historical] Museum who’s been through the Eel River Canyon many times, the whole line,” Morris said. “He knew all these things about the rail history and the indigenous peoples history of that canyon. … It was so exciting to listen to him and hear his stories.”
Several residents suggested that indigenous history and other markers of community knowledge be incorporated into the trail.
Community members can learn more about the Master Plan and offer feedback on the trail online. More in-person meetings will take place over the summer, as well as an online meeting Apr. 4 at 6 p.m.
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.