PORT ANGELES — Rich James has been described by people in the local cycling community as “crucial” to the development and current state of the Olympic Discovery Trail.
Now, however, he’s stepping away from the duties that saw him help develop a more than 100-mile trail system stretching across two counties, having retired from his role as Clallam County’s transportation program manager in June.
“I’ve known Rich since the early 1990s when he moved to Port Angeles,” said Jeff Bohman, current president of the Peninsula Trails Coalition (PTC) board of directors.
“We worked in the same area of the [Clallam County] courthouse at the time. As soon as he was in a position to help the trails, it was like a light went on.”
Bohman said that the Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT) could only become what it has due to the combination of jurisdictional support and resources from the county that James was in a position to provide with his job as a transportation official.
“But without his passion, there wouldn’t have been nearly as much achieved, or at the level it was,” Bohman added.
Richard Bloomer, a member of the Olympic Peninsula Bicycle Alliance, put it a little more succinctly. “One [PTC] board member told me there would be no ODT as we know it had it not been for Rich.”
Bloomer also described James as “exceptionally smart [and] dedicated to the trail.”
James himself was more humble in his description of his work.
“It was the public that identified [the ODT] as a major goal,” he said in an interview. “They just needed an advocate from the county, and I’ve always been a bicyclist, so I became that advocate.”
James said that growing up in Shelton, cycling was his way of having independence.
“I rode the Olympic Peninsula with a friend in high school, and getting around Lake Crescent back then was a terrifying experience,” he said.
“So I already knew a little bit about it when I took over as the program manager. The whole [ODT] system could be improved, it just needed someone to push it along.”
As the Clallam County official most involved in the ongoing ODT project, James’ way to “push it along” largely came from helping to secure state and federal funding through grantwriting and other funding methods. He said more than half the money he secured came from the federal or state level, greatly easing the financial burden for working on the trail at more local levels.
“Helping make that easier is a point of pride for me,” James said.
Even with his humility, James said he has a lot of projects that he’s admittedly proud of.
“The Elwha River Bridge is a very unique design in that it was built as a bridge with maximized views for motorized users, and has a pedestrian and non-motorized vehicle segment under it,” James said, calling out one particular project he enjoyed.
“I’ve seen a number of bridges retrofitted to work like that, but I don’t know of many built that way.”
“Rich represents a very exceptional public servant,” said Bob Anundson, who joined the PTC board in 2017 but was familiar with James’ work in the past from time in the Sequim city government.
“His positive attributes include but are not limited to being a visionary, both [as a] long term and short term planner … [a] fighter to work through adversity of both physical elements and opposition and [being] smart and knowledgeable … in engineering [and] leveraging local, state, and national public and government resources.
“In a very real way, he made the trail become what it is,” Anundson added. “He has an open invitation to join the [PTC] board if he wants it.”
Bohman echoed many of the same sentiments as Anundson, particularly noting James’ ability to pursue funding opportunities through grant proposals and other financial sources to support the ODT.
“Short of him working until the last piece of the trail is commissioned,” Bohman said, “which wouldn’t happen for another 10 or 15 years, he’s retired on as high of a note as he can.
“He’s put all the pieces in place to finish two more very crucial segments of the trail, the Spruce Railroad segment on the north end of Lake Crescent, and a stretch connecting Forks to La Push. Those two projects have a much easier road to completion because of Rich’s work, even if he’s no longer directly involved. It’s a real hallmark and capstone for his career in this area.”
Said James, “I really wanted to try and wait to retire until [the Lake Crescent connection] was under construction. But I’m glad I at least put it in a position to be constructed.”
When asked about the continuation of his work on the ODT, James said that he has full faith in Steve Gray, his successor at Clallam County.
“Steve has been involved in this for more than 20 years since I hired him,” James said, in praise of someone he calls one of his best friends.
“He’ll improve on what I did, and I think he can get the trail completely connected and finished in 10 years.”
When asked what’s next for him, James indicated that he’s going to continue much of the same work as he’s done in the past, just from the perspective of a citizen rather than a county employee.
“I’m going to keep my hand on the pulse of what’s going on,” he said. “I’ll be keeping on the county commissioners to finish the projects that have already been started, and properly maintain the ones we’ve already done.”
James also said that he plans on joining the PTC board toward the end of the year, and that for now he’s keeping busy with working with Kitsap County officials to get a trail project complete that would connect the Hood Canal Bridge to Kingston with bike trails.
“They’ve got the right of way and the land secured,” James said. “Someone just needs to convince the county to apply for the grants they need for planning and construction.”