By Bennett Hall

Corvallis Gazette-Times

HARLAN — They skipped the ceremonial campfire in deference to the wildfires burning around the state, but that small setback could not dampen the small crowd’s enthusiasm at the formal opening of the Corvallis to the Sea Trail on Friday afternoon.

Technically, only half the trail is open — a 32-mile stretch from the confluence of the Marys and Willamette rivers in downtown Corvallis to the Big Elk Campground near Harlan, where the ceremony was held. It will likely be at least another two years before the rest of the route — a 30-mile section ending at Ona Beach, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean south of Newport — is ready to go.

But considering that it took more than 40 years of on-again, off-again effort to get the project to this point, there was plenty of cause for celebration.

Some 30 people gathered for the event, many of them members of the Corvallis to the Sea Trail Partnership, the volunteer organization that was formed in 2003 to revive the dream of a pathway to connect the valley and the coast.

Gary Chapman, president of the organization, noted that 40,000 hours of work and $20,000 in donations have gone into the project so far and thanked the trail volunteers and their partners for their efforts.

“We’re here to celebrate the success that each of you has had a part in,” he said.

But he also reminded them that there was still more work to come.

“We’ve reached the first half of that goal,” Chapman said. “We’ve got 30 miles of trail. We’ve got another 30 miles to go — but that’s another story.”

The trail — most of which is open to mountain bikers and horseback riders as well as hikers — had its genesis in the 1970s. Among the early champions of the route were Phil DeLucchi, a landscape architect with the Siuslaw National Forest, and Mike Bohannan, whose family has deep ties to the Coast Range.

The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management each took a run at trying to build the trail, with support from Oregon State University students and others. But those early efforts were abandoned, and the idea lay dormant until the early 2000s.

In 2003, the Corvallis to the Sea Trail Partnership was organized to take up the cause once again, and under Chapman’s leadership, the all-volunteer organization has completed the first half of the route and laid the groundwork for the second.

The C2C Trail, as it is known, is something of a patchwork, stitched together from newly built and existing stretches of hiking trail, city streets, country lanes and decommissioned logging roads. It crosses both public and private lands with many different owners, all of whom had to be persuaded to allow the trail to cross their property.

Getting them to agree was not always easy. Bond Starker of Starker Forests, a Philomath-based timber company with land along the route, was skeptical when the idea was first proposed but eventually became a strong supporter.

“We had some concerns with the first couple of iterations and how it might affect private lands,” he said at Friday’s dedication ceremony. “(But) we’re pleased it’s finally going to come together and become a reality. Congratulations.”

The next phase of the route is mainly on Siuslaw National Forest land.

Only about 6 miles of new trail needs to be built, but that work can’t begin until the agency grants a permit to the C2C Trail Partnership. Under federal law, an in-depth environmental assessment must be completed before that can happen, and that’s a time-consuming process.

Siuslaw National Forest Service Supervisor Jerry Ingersoll, who attended the trail opening Friday, said his staff is working to complete the study as quickly as possible.

“I know it’s not as fast as the trail people would like, but we will get it done,” Ingersoll said.

“We all come out here for the beauty of these natural places. We have to make sure that whatever we do in creating a trail protects those resources.”

After the ceremony, Chapman said it felt good to see the first half of the trail open — even though he and his organization still have more work ahead of them.

“You know that book called ‘Waiting to Exhale’? I’ve exhaled,” he said. “Now it’s time to enjoy it — and then do it again.”