By Zach Hagadone
After a year of planning among federal, state and local agencies, the city of Sandpoint is preparing to finalize its recreation plan for the Little Sand Creek Watershed, which not only provides the community with its source of drinking water but offers opportunities for hiking, biking and other backcountry activities.
Sandpoint Parks Planning and Development Manager Maeve Nevins-Lavtar presented the Little Sand Creek Watershed Recreation Plan to the City Council at its regular meeting May 17, emphasizing that it remains “a high-level master plan” with “several calls to action or action items for future work.”
Meanwhile, the community is invited to review the complete draft of the plan and share their thoughts, questions and concerns at bit.ly/3MvKtW7. Nevins-Lavtar said city staff will review public feedback before bringing the final draft plan back before council, which is anticipated to appear on the Wednesday, June 7 meeting agenda.
Encompassing almost 7,413 acres, the watershed is located south of Schweitzer Ski Resort and divided in ownership between the resort, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Idaho Department of Lands and Sandpoint — the city being the majority landholder with 3,921 acres.
The primary uses of the watershed have been as a water source, commercial timber harvesting and some recreation — the latter primarily consisting of a network of trails created by users, but which became formalized under a 2015 agreement between the city and local biking organization Pend Oreille Pedalers. Those trails amount to 13.15 miles — maintained by POP under the agreement — but as usage has grown, the city determined a plan was needed to guide future development.
Councilors adopted the Little Sand Creek Watershed Master Plan in 2021, which established the primary purpose of the watershed “to protect or enhance the quality of water generated by the Little Sand Creek Watershed and to insure an adequate and continuous supply of water, in perpetuity.”
In addition, the master plan established secondary goals, including, “To provide opportunities for compatible uses of the land that are in the public’s best interest and benefit.” The master plan addressed the recreational component by calling for the city to develop comprehensive guidance on how outdoor activities should be developed and managed in the watershed, which resulted in the draft document that Nevins-Lavtar presented May 17 to the council.
“We had a pretty monumental effort to bring together various entities,” she said, citing the various landowners in the watershed and adding, “During the initial processes we’ve been able to get all of those people and those entities in the room and we’ve continued to maintain relationships with them.”
Among the key recommendations in the draft recreation plan is exploring the creation of a cooperative agreement with those stakeholders “for the purposes of moving forward with recreation management and natural resource management and conservation efforts as an entire body, instead of one landowner here and one over there.”
Nevins-Lavtar said such an agreement would help to “unify and strengthen” management in the watershed, while reducing bureaucratic hurdles to inter-agency collaboration.
Turning to the plan itself, Nevins-Lavtar said an additional 52 miles of trails are envisioned, mostly located in the “lower basin” area, which is the location of the existing POP-maintained network. Uses on those trails range from biking to hiking to backcountry skiing, snowshoeing and Nordic skiing.
However, Nevins-Lavtar stressed, “While there are concept lines on the plan, they are concept only and that doesn’t mean that it’s a blueprint to go and develop those.”
Other sections of the plan address “passive recreation” such as berry picking and foraging, recommending the development of a management plan to preserve native plant species and provide educational and ADA-access opportunities.
A number of placemaking and educational concepts are included in the plan, including branding and signage, as well as interpretive and informational features.
Though it is a recreation plan, conservation remains the top priority, as the city has set buffer zone restrictions of between 75 and 150 feet on either side of streams throughout the watershed (depending on whether they are fish-bearing), as well as buffer zones of between 15 and 100 feet around wetlands ranging from ¼ acres to more than five acres.
The plan identifies a number of limited uses, including hunting, horseback riding, campfires and motorized vehicles — except on Schweitzer Mountain Road — which require a permit. A permit application, fee structure and procedure for allowing limited or regulated recreation in the watershed would be developed under the plan.
While camping is restricted, “the opportunity for a front-country, ADA-accessible family camping experience close to the road is desired by some in the community as an introduction to the outdoors,” according to the plan, and could be provided using a “hut or simple structure.”
Finally, a policy on dogs in the watershed is called for by the plan, noting that dogs are prohibited from or restricted to certain areas within many municipal watersheds, as they can cause off-trail erosion, damage vegetation, spread noxious weeds and — critically — pollute water sources with fecal waste.
Sandpoint doesn’t currently have a dog policy for the watershed, but “one is necessary as the trail system is developed to prevent impacts to the city’s drinking water,” according to the plan.
Councilor Jason Welker underscored his support for the overall plan, though as executive director of POP — one of the key recreational stakeholders in the watershed — he announced he would recuse himself when it comes before council.
However, he took the opportunity at the May 17 update presentation to make his position known, saying, “What makes Sandpoint truly unique is our geography and our location relative to this beautiful basin just two-and-a-half miles from downtown.”
“Trail systems bring in millions of dollars of revenue to communities,” he said, later adding, “a trail is a free amenity once it’s there — there’s never going to be an admission fee. … Once these trails are built they’re for everybody.”
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