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Facing Deadlier Fires, California Tries Something New: More Logging

Article in today's WSJ:  download PDF below.

What could this mean for the future of the NWP, especially above Willits?

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Just a few days ago there was an article in the Eureka Times Standard about the trail which you might be able to access here: 

If you scroll all the way down to the second paragraph from the end, a NCRA spokesman revealed what the entire problem has been:  The State created the NCRA but then gave them no money.  That's what killed this railroad.  It wasn't the weather nor the "Blue Goo" it was the State.  Sure, the geology is rough and was a major factor but is was the State that might've succeeded in driving the final nail in the coffin.

Why would the State provide the NCRA with zero funding but spend what might be ¾ of a billion dollars building a trail?  This boondoggle makes no sense.  I am an enthusiastic cyclist and even make use of a converted rail to trail in my neighborhood.  But I can tell you right now, I'd be somewhat reluctant to ride back into the Eel River Canyon wilderness on a bicycle.

The prediction that people will come from all over the world to ride on it is, uh, well, I guess I'm not sure.

Now here's a good thought.  They should not let anyone on there unless they pay a hefty fee.  The fees collected should be used to pay for the trail.  Could they?  Sadly, that is the logic that the government uses to apply to railroads.  Amtrak and the NCRA are in the same boat to a certain degree.  No profit?  Then we don't need it.

 Now back to SMART.  If your efforts prove fruitful, could legislation be passed that would have SMART take over the entire line to Eureka?  That might be a way out of this.  Presumably, Mendocino and Humboldt counties would have to approve some kind of a tax to support it like Marin and Sanoma did.  Is that even a remote possibility?


Fred M. Cain

Fred- I hate to disagree with you but with the possible exception of basic timber industry economics it's hard to find factors more responsible for killing the railroad than "blue goo" and weather.

Rationale: In one of the long winded threads from a couple years back I wrote something along the lines of the creation of the coastal ranges being somewhat akin to pushing a square shovel backwards through a mud puddle.  Most of northwestern California is little more than unconsolidated rubble and ocean bed sediments scraped up by and piled against the leading edge of the North American continent for the last several million years.  End result is that there is really nothing solid into which a roadbed for anything can be anchored in most of that country, and there are a great many spots where the ground quite literally never stops moving.  

That being said, how much the ground moved is directly related to how much moisture falls on the hillsides.  You get several years of extended drought, things mostly stabilize and the railroad can hum along just fine.  It's kind of interesting to look back through the last thirty or forty years of history to see the interplay of wet and dry cycles and economics.  Lumber traffic fell off precipitously after the Island Mountain Tunnel reopened in 1979, partially because the shippers on the north end had learned how to live without the railroad for 14 months but largely because the expansion of Redwood National Park took a lot of timberlands off the table.  The redwood industry as a whole had been cutting through the forests at unsustainable rates since the end of World War II, so while the park expansion did have an effect it only sped up what would have been an inevitable timber crunch that would have happened anyway, and a lot of mills shut down in the late 1970s/early 1980s time frame.  You also cannot overlook that the hyperinflationary years at the end of the 1970s also dramatically curtailed lumber production across the board, so it wasn't all environmentalism.  Unfortunately, the plunging traffic levels coincided with an inordinate wet cycle that often shut the line north of Willits down for days to weeks to occasionally months at a time and substantially increased costs.  When SP applied to abandon the NWP north of Willits, they stated that the company spent six out of every ten dollars of earned revenue on the line on track maintenance, about three times the average of the rest of the system.  Annual losses ran easily into the millions.  

The Eureka Southern took over on 1 September 1984, but its traffic levels never really came close to what NWP handled in that 1981/1982 time frame, and the wet cycle continued.  The massive storms of 1986 bankrupted the company, and it operated under a court appointed receiver.  Fortunately, 1986 was the last wet year, and California entered an extended drought that lasted through the rest of the 1980s.  The roadbed stabilized and the bankrupt EUKA was able to survive and operate with minimal disruption from 1986 until the spring of 1992.  Of course, dry conditions also mean higher fire danger, and while the roadbed remained largely intact the railroad started many fires, to the point California Department of Forestry (now CalFire) periodically seized EUKA locomotives and otherwise took some very strong enforcement actions against the railroad to try to limit the number of blazes the trains set.  Bottom line, the drought in all reality allowed the Eureka Southern to live through its bankruptcy years, had another winter on the scale of 1982 or 1986 happened in, say, 1988 or 1989, that probably would have been the end of the line right then and there.   

North Coast Railroad Authority bought the line out of bankruptcy, and the North Coast Railroad commenced operations on 1 April 1992.  Traffic really didn't improve much over the Eureka Southern days, but unfortunately for NCRA/NCRR the winter of 1992/1993 marked the start of another extended abnormally wet cycle, resulting in the railroad being shut down usually for 1-3 months at a time just about every spring.  Obviously this really causes the shippers to start to look elsewhere for their shipping needs.  There are several factors that really contributed to the death spiral on the north end.  My primary list would be (1) Nobody really had the cash flow to be able to spend the required amount of maintenance money to keep the line open at any point after the late 1970s- I'm talking here mostly about cleaning and maintaining drainage systems, ballasting the line, unplugging culverts, and everything else the line required to keep the roadbed as intact as possible, not to mention replacing ties and other more normal maintenance activities.  This no doubt contributed to the amount of storm damage the line suffered through the early to middle 1990s.  (2) NCRA/NCRR only survived through most of those storms because it was able to apply for and get disaster relief funds from FEMA after each major storm year.  Unfortunately, the cash crunch created by lack of freight revenues forced NCRA to spend FEMA funds on things for which that money could not legally be used.  FEMA got wind of this, and when they demanded a full accounting of how their money had been spent NCRA was unable to provide that because....   (3) NCRA as a hand to mouth agency lacked even rudimentary accounting structures, so the agency had no way of showing FEMA how their money had been spent, much less how any revenue streams got spent.  Whatever showed up in the bank account had already been spent on something, or would be the day it arrived, and the agency made no efforts to differentiate who's money was spent where.  FEMA uncovered all of this when they started looking around, and held up any further disaster relief funding until the agency could get accounting systems in place.  Unfortunately, the 1997/1998 winter happened right in the middle of this, and the damage done by the powerful storms in the first days of 1998 pounded the final nail in the coffin.  

The question does remain, how would history have been written differently had Governor Dukmejian not vetoed the companion NCRA funding bill?  There's no easy answer to this.  Signing the bill wouldn't have changed the weather any, the floods and heavy rain events would have still happened, and the line would have still been closed for months on end each winter.  Perhaps the additional agency funding would have allowed them to institute accounting systems that might have headed off the subsequent problems with FEMA.  I doubt the agency funding would have led to significantly more people and equipment in the Eel River Canyon keeping the line from falling into the river.  Perhaps the agency might have avoided taking on the staggering debt load it eventually accumulated trying to keep the line open.  The NWP as a whole might have staggered on for a couple more years, but it's very hard to near impossible to see how the line could have or would have survived much longer than it did- the wet cycle continued for several years after 1998, which would have resulted in many more millions of dollars needed to repair storm damage annually, and then the rash of sawmill closures that hit the north coast in the early 2000s almost certainly would have doomed the railroad even if it managed to survive that long.  Throw in the various and often crippling budget problems the state government experienced at several points in time, NCRA likely would have been an agency targeted for anything from steep budget cuts to outright funding elimination during those tough times.  IF the NWP had lasted another decade, I'm positive the Great Recession of 2008 would have killed it.  But all that is just speculation.  

I don't hold out any hope for rail service to come back to the north coast.  I doubt Willits will ever have a rail connection to the outside world.  I could see a tourist railroad one day developing around Humboldt Bay, but even that has some massive obstacles to overcome.  I also don't see a recreational trail happening on the old railroad grade, no way any agency is going to have the funds or ability to build and then maintain that trail, and the neighbors have encroached on the right-of-way in so many places in the canyon that it would be difficult to wrest it back from them.  As for SMART expanding that far north, they're going to be extremely lucky if they ever reach Cloverdale.  I'm not sure I see any justification for commuter rail service north of there, not until or unless we have some real major systematic changes to our society.  SMART largely exists as it does now because of a successful fight the people of Marin County have made over the last 20-30 years to make sure their money stays in their county and in no way, shape, or form could ever be used in the black hole money pit that is the railroad north of Cloverdale- that battle is one of the major driving forces that has shaped the present situation.  I'd expect nothing less than full fledged vociferous opposition to any efforts to have SMART expand northward.  

Those are my thoughts.

Jeff Moore

Elko, NV      



First of all I want to let you know what an excellent run-down and history review that you gave us.  I think most of what you said I already knew but have forgotten so, yeah, your efforts are much appreciated there.

I feel like your assessment of the line north of Willits is overly pessimistic but then again it might really be that a hefty dose of pessimism is on order here.  There is one reason and one reason alone that I continue to have a very faint ray of hope.  That is because there is a group of businessmen in the Humboldt Bay area that wants rail service back rather badly.

Are they truly serious?  Are they so serious that they will really attempt to build the Humboldt and Eastern?  If they make a serious attempt to move ahead with this they will soon find that rebuilding the old line will be much more within their financial reach.  However, all bets are off if this whole thing is nothing more than a scam which it may well be.  The fact that they refuse to return e-mails suggests as much.

As for the weather and the “blue goo” my question is not if this can be addressed or mitigated but HOW?  Railroads all over the world sometimes operate over some very difficult conditions.  The Feather River Canyon line comes to mind.  So, I think it can be done with a high price tag but that high price tag could still be one-tenth or one-fifth of the price tag of completing the H&E.

As for the weather, there have been some very serious droughts in recent years that are almost biblical in nature.  The global warming and climate change alarmists have blamed it all on climate change.  But, guess what?  It appears that California might just be headed into another “wet cycle” as you say. 

There are a couple of good reads that I have enjoyed immensely.  They are Storm and Fire by George R. Stewart.  Written back in the forties they made me wonder if what has happened in recent years isn’t what’s been happening all along.  Climate change not withstanding, could it possibly be the same cycle of extreme drought, fires and floods that have plagued California for millennia?  I can’t say but it makes me wonder, that’s all.  In any event, if we are headed back into a wet cycle the railroad won’t be running anyway.  At least not in THIS wet cycle.  Yeah, I know, I can’t quite give this up.


Fred M. Cain,

Topeka, IN


First off, you really cannot compare the Eel to the Feather River.  Geology is completely different between the two lines, and while the Feather River route does have a lot of rock slides and similar issues, the roadbed at least is far more solid on the Feather than it is anywhere on the Eel. 

On your "As for the weather and the “blue goo” my question is not if this can be addressed or mitigated but HOW?" can be done, I have never questioned that nor stated it couldn't be done.  The problem is that the job requires an immense number of people and resources.  If you put a couple hundred people to work full time with a lot of equipment on the railroad between Willits and Eureka, you might just be able to do everything you have to do to keep the railroad open and functional.  There are things that can be done using some modern engineering and other techniques, but they have their limits, and in the end the railroad would need constant attention by large sections gangs in order to remain passable.  This is what Caltrans does to keep Highway 101 open, at least most of the time.  The NWP could afford this back when it hauled 300-500 loads each day out of Eureka- that was a lot of traffic and a lot of revenue, which allowed SP/NWP to commit the kind of resources it takes to keep a stable roadbed in that geology.  True, you might have to rebuild the line after a big flood every decade or so (1952 and 1964 were the big years for this, not including tunnel fires), but otherwise you could keep disruptions to a minimum.  The question becomes, how do you finance this kind and level of work if you don't have that kind of revenue stream?  Pretty quick you end up where the NWP got.  If you can't get the money from operating revenue it has to come from somewhere else, and about the only other "somewhere" would be government money, tax dollars, and all that comes with that.  

Fred, have you seen this video?  Keep in mind while you are watching it that it dates from 2009, about a decade after the railroad closed, and another decade has passed since this footage...

Jeff Moore

Elko, NV


Thanks again for the information.  Yes, I saw that video.  Did you make it?  

I would venture to guess that the Humboldt & Eastern people believe they will get 500+ loads a day.  They have "guesstimated" that building the H&E will cost around $10 billion but it'd probably be safe to double that figure.  Once they figure that out their eyes might begin to turn to the south.  

That is my only ray of hope.  But as I've said before, sadly, I fear the whole thing is probably a scam.  I honestly do not know what their motivation is.  Are they trying to rip off local investors?  Or, are they merely trying to get someone's attention?  Or are they genuinely serious?

Here's a good thought.  If they ever announce another public meeting, could you, Richard, Dave or ANYONE on this list attend and ask some questions?  I would just love to do that but I live in Indiana now.


Fred M. Cain


Good historical reminder but you miss an important point.  Now that I am a resident, you need to include "...and Sonoma County...." in this sentence: "SMART largely exists as it does now because of a successful fight the people of Marin County have made over the last 20-30 years to "  As well remember the NWPRR Historical Society resides in our County too and when you come to Santa Rosa don't forget to visit the NWP exhibit in the station there that serves SMART.

Richard, historically it has been Marin County that was the proverbial "stick in the mud" when it came to placing the NWP in public ownership.  As I've stated before....NCRA from its startup was owned and managed by the Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity county governments.  They bought the line north of Willits in 1992.  Efforts to have the public buy the NWP south of Willits had been ongoing for some time, but Marin County especially complicated the negotiations due to its stance that none of its money could be spent on any of the expensive parts of the line up north (Russian and Eel River canyons).  When the public finally did buy the rest of the NWP in 1997, Sonoma County joined NCRA's ownership group, and NCRA bought the line from Willits to Healdsburg.  Concurrent with this the state created the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Authority, owned by Marin County, NCRA, and Golden Gate Bridge District, and NWPRA bought the rest of the NWP south of Healdsburg.  NCRA got a permanent freight easement over NWPRA trackage as part of that transaction.  This is how things worked to satisfy Marin County's concerns so that they would get on board.  SMART eventually acquired the NWPRA trackage, which is largely what brought us to the present situation.  

I don't recall Sonoma County ever having the same level of concerns as Marin, and that they joined NCRA's structure tends to reinforce this.  

Jeff Moore

Elko, NV 

So, depending on how the images here get displayed, they depict the same patch of ground north and east of McKinleyville in 1999 and then 2016.  Lots of evidence of logging happening in this part of the world in that 17 or so year span.  As I said in my previous reply, there's still quite a bit of logging happening in California. 

One of the basic problems at the root of the issues here is that in all reality there really isn't a whole lot of the "big stuff" left.  The small patchwork clearcutting seen in these two images seems to be typical of how most private California forests are now being managed, if you scroll around forested areas in the state in Google Earth you can see this same pattern repeated over and over again.  As I mentioned above, the lack of significant timber sales coming off of public land forces the industry to intensify logging on private lands, this very clearly shows in Google Earth. 

Also, Fred, a lot of the impacts and trends to forest health of which you speak are far more common and typical of the drier pine forests to the east, the logging of which has zero impact to the NWP.  Long term fire exclusion is as big of a problem as anything else, Ponderosa and Jeffrey pine forests without periodic low intensity fires start to transition towards forests dominated by incense cedar and thickets of white fir after a half century or so.

Jeff Moore

Elko, NV


Thanks for your response and information and excellent images!  I find myself agreeing with what you're saying here.


Fred M Cain


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