By Mayor Shelby Rognstad
This week is a big one for the future of the Little Sand Creek Watershed. Recreation in the watershed has been a long time coming. Historically, the city has not been warm to the idea.
Historically, recreation and conservation haven’t been perceived as compatible. In recent decades, however, sister communities like Whitefish, Mont.; Bend, Ore.; and many others have demonstrated that, indeed, recreation and water conservation can go hand in hand and even be mutually supportive, if done correctly.
When I approached the then-Public Works director in 2012, he, like others at the city, didn’t feel comfortable with the idea that the watershed should be used for anything except water collection. However, in 2012 the city had just unveiled its new lake treatment plant that would provide all the water to support Sandpoint’s future growth. We now get half of our potable water from the lake and that proportion will continue to grow in the future.
It seemed unfathomable to me that the 5,000 acres taxpayers had purchased between Sandpoint and Schweitzer was off limits. So in 2013 I approached the Pend Oreille Pedalers and pitched the idea of a 20-plus-mile “epic” trail along the crestline circumnavigating the watershed. At the time, the Pedalers had their plates full with other commitments, but with the change in the POP board that fall, there was a renewed commitment to trail building and POP was on board to make the Watershed Crest Trail (WCT) a reality.
By 2014 we drafted the first agreement between the city and POP to build and manage the future WCT.
Construction of the WCT is a long-term project that has been intermittently underway since that time. The High Point and Solar Ecstasy trails have since been built as its first legs.
Part of the commitment to the project from the beginning included decommissioning the problematic portions of the original lower basin trail and rebuilding it to modern safety and environmental standards. Those improvements have been worked on over the past several years and culminated in a new multi-use, two-way trail section that just opened last weekend.
I had the privilege to join a few dozen Pedalers and a few city staff for a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 8 that officially opened the new Lower Basin Cross Country Trail. Now the lower basin network includes two sections for uphill and downhill.
It was built by more than 700 volunteer hours of local riders. It’s a fun flowy trail with some light technical sections. There are nearly 100 signs for wayfinding and safety (including markers for public safety access and geo-location). The trail is built to the highest International Mountain Bicycling Association standards, maximizing environmental care, safety, longevity and excitement.
This trail exemplifies the strong partnership between the city and POP, as well as the many groups that have been dedicated to POP’s success in this endeavor, including Schweitzer, Selkirk Recreation District, the Equinox Foundation, the National Park Service and Kaniksu Land Trust. It also exemplifies how, when done right, recreation and conservation can work together.
On Oct. 10 and Oct. 11, the Pedalers, city staff, stakeholders, concerned citizens and other design experts met to begin to put the vision to paper for future recreational use in the 8,000-acre watershed. This effort feels like a new beginning in a long process that will result in the development of a master plan for appropriate recreation in the watershed.
In partnership with Schweitzer, the Bureau of Land Management, Idaho Department of Lands and the U.S. Forest Service, we have an incredible asset that will be an economic boon for our region and provide endless joy and communion with nature for generations of local families and visitors.
You can provide input on watershed recreation through this survey: opentownhall.com/12276.
You can also provide input on operations planning for the James E. Russell Sports Center operations: opentownhall.com/12275. And the city’s snow plan (through Saturday, Oct.15): opentownhall.com/12227.
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