Dismantling of the Camas Prairie Railroad
Following a recent visit to Idaho, one wonders why the CSP line is being dismantled around Ferdinand and Cottonwood - while railroad traffic has picked up ten fold in many places around the country? With diesel fuel recently spiking at around $5.00 a gallon this year, and trucking being the choice of transportation off the Prairie, I think it's a wake-up call for what may occur with the grain growers on Camas Prairie. On visiting Montana on the same trip, I learned that the high price of diesel has driven the 100 plus daily grain trucks that ran for many years from Montana to Lewiston off the roads. The shipment of grain out of Montana to the west coast ports has returned to the railroads, which is about ten times more efficient than truck transportation when moving grain. The Camas Prairie grain industry shortly will not have that option if they also lose the line from Craigmont down to Lewiston.
While driving an 80-mile stretch down the Columbia River out of Pasco, on my return to Portland, I counted well over a dozen trains moving up and down the river. From my windshield view, it looked like the American Railroad system is roaring back into the mainstream of modern day transportation. The high price of railroad stock has also shown that the industry is on a big rebound.
In 1905 James Hill shared his concern about the future of the Railroad industry with his son who took over the Great Northern after his father's retirement. Hill warned his son "to be out of the railroad business by the time you're forty." Unfortunately, many banks and investors picked up on his advice and the railroads fell out of the leadership roll with the country's transportation industry. Last year Warren Buffett's investment company purchased one of the largest American railroad companies The Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Line. This should be a good indication of where we are heading with the country's future transportation industries. Buffett is known to be one of the most successful investors in American History. He has been a prominent fixture in forecasting future trends in the economy. Buffet recently met with the country's prominent leaders in giving his input on how to stem the current financial melt-down that is infecting the stability of the economic health of the country.
I am confused as to why the State of Idaho and the grain industry from Central Idaho have allowed one of their most valuable transportation infrastructures, the Camas Prairie Railroad to decay from non-use and now to be disassembled. In doing some quick research on the subject, I found that the daily railroad passenger service out of Lewiston to Grangeville was shut down in the 1950's when the US Postal Service switched the mail service to truck transportation over US Highway 95. With the government building a network of dams and locks up the Columbia and Snake rivers (1950's-1960') to Clarkston and Lewiston, shipping by water became a new, and at times, a cheaper form of transportation. With gas and diesel prices extremely low back then, and with a much improved Hwy 95 off the Prairie, many grain growers bypassed the Camas Prairie Rail Road and started trucking their crops directly to the Port of Clarkston. The old Camas Prairie Railroad line fell into hard times and was spun off from the old original holding company and was sold a couple of times. Similar events have occurred in neighboring Oregon and Washington.
With the new crisis of record diesel prices throughout the country and trucking companies going out of business, it looks like rural communities and farmers are vulnerable to being priced out of business. Those that have access to railroad lines will probably weather the financial and energy crisis gripping the country. Washington and Oregon have stepped in and are providing subsides and financial incentives to keep small and independent railroad branch lines like the old Camas Prairie Railroad Line in operation - Idaho has not yet seen the importance of doing so.
It is interesting that during the demise of the Camas Prairie Railroad line from 1995-2006, Idaho farmers received $1.9 billion in direct payments from the Federal Government Farm Bills. During that period, Idaho Country farmers received direct payments of $63.1 million and Lewis County farmers received $59.3 million. The two Camas Prairie farm counties' combined total was $122.4 million during this ten-year period (see Environmental Works Group - ewg.org). The CSP officially ground to a halt in July 1998. I have not been able to find where the Federal Government, the State of Idaho, or the Idaho farming industry gave 1 cent to the local railroad line to stay in business during this period of time of high crop subsidies. They can subsidize highways, airports, and seaports, but never a dime to the railroads. A friend of mine who grew up in Montana, stated that railroads in that state were looked upon as "cash cows" and taxed so heavily that everyone had a surplus budgets in the 1900's.
The current owner of the old CSP, Mike Williams and his family, run Bountiful Grain and Craig Mountain Railroad. From what I understand they have not been able to generate any interest from the State of Idaho, the local communities or the Camas Prairie grain growers in keeping the local railroad solvent. It seems curious to me that at the same time the Feds are prepared to bail out Wall Street to a tune of $700 billion dollars.
One wonders what the Camas Prairie and the surrounding communities will look like in a few years when the Federal Government will no longer fund the farm subsidies/pork-barrel earmarks decried and condemned by the McCain/Palin Administration. With a wake-up call of the recent high price of truck transportation and the dismantling of the Camas Prairie Railroad, the local farmers might well find themselves priced out of the market and out of business. Interesting, that we can bail out Wall Street, the big banks, big corporations, direct payments to the farmers, but we don't seem to be interested in helping small American businesses. An old quote that Warren Buffett has been said to use is "that man is too old too soon and too smart too late. Our lack of foresight can best be summed up with an old quote from Warren Buffett: "that man is too old too soon and too smart too late."
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Bio: Jim Reed was born and raised in Cottonwood, Idaho. He graduated from the University of Idaho in Political Science. He worked several summers for grain growers on the Camas Prairie-both in Idaho and Lewis County. He is retired and lives in Portland, Oregon