Friday, June 1, 2012

Refuge, recreation or both?

Public has differing opinions for land north of Ketchum

Express Staff Writer

The city of Ketchum is hoping to acquire the federally owned Sun Peak Picnic Site north of Ketchum. Photo by David N. Seelig

In 2000, then Ketchum Mayor Guy Coles contacted the BLM to inquire about the city's acquiring the Sun Peak Day Use area north of the city.

Coles wanted to preserve the site for recreation and also proposed construction of a well that would be connected to the municipal water system.

A dozen years later, the city is still pursuing the idea as part of a larger plan that could include transfer of ownership of more than 300 acres of land, new recreational amenities, a well and riparian restoration on a portion of the Big Wood River.

As momentum increases, so has opposition by some residents who fear impacts to their water supply, their views and their quiet corner of the county.

The city of Ketchum, partnering with the Wood River Land Trust, applied in 2008 to the BLM for a Recreation and Public Purposes patent, which would grant deed-restricted ownership to the city of two parcels of land, preserving reversionary rights for the BLM.

The area under consideration includes a parcel north of town—210 acres from Sun Peak Day Use Area to the Lake Creek trailhead—and one of about 105 acres at the confluence of the Big Wood River and Warm Springs Creek.

"These are highly utilized day-use areas," said Ketchum Parks & Recreation Director Jennifer Smith. "So it's like they are nearby city parks in terms of access and use."

As ideas for the parcels expanded, so did stakeholders. Myriad advocacy groups, federal and local entities and other parties have met to determine how the project can satisfy goals that include improved recreation opportunities and tourism; riparian, vegetation and habitat restoration; a land exchange; and sediment trap management.

If the BLM patent agreement is approved, the Wood River Land Trust would oversee riparian, vegetation and habitat restoration, while the Ketchum Parks & Recreation Department would oversee management and maintenance of recreation components.

"There's a really great opportunity here for recreation access to come together with conservation and achieve multiple goals," Smith said. "It's really the confluence of conservation and recreation that we're looking to achieve."

Project concepts have been identified and refined over the past few years, but a master plan has not been developed.

The Ketchum City Council in January approved a contract with Colorado-based S2o Design and Engineering for master planning services for recreational aspects of the north parcel, including a whitewater park. Whitewater parks are modified stream channels that accommodate kayaking and other river sports.

Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall said designs need to be considered now in anticipation of budget planning this summer for the next fiscal year.

"We need to get into the master planning process so we can see what the costs and benefits are," he said.

"This isn't about Ketchum," he added. "This is an opportunity to enhance the quality of life in the entire county, and the state, for that matter."

Recreational aspects

The river is a significant amenity for valley residents and visitors, Hall said, but there aren't many access points. A master plan for the river park and surrounding area would facilitate public access as well as enhance the gateway to Hulen Meadows and the north entrance to Ketchum.

Possible options for the area are picnic shelters, fishing access, restrooms, accessibility enhancements and nature trails.

The main feature is the proposed whitewater park along the Big Wood River, approximately from Lake Creek bridge to the Sun Peak picnic area.

The city of Ketchum sees that stretch of the river as optimal.

"It's fully surrounded by public property and the drop in the river is ideal," Smith said.

She said the area's natural features would be incorporated into the plan.

"The idea here is to keep the rural character," she said.

Back to nature

Though rural in character, the land and river are not in their original states.

"This stretch of river has been massively manipulated in the past," Smith said.

Hulen Pond was excavated in the early 1990s as a sediment trap to mitigate for changes in the river following work on nearby state Highway 75. It has since become a quiet place to walk dogs, watch birds or stroll along placid water's edge.

Hulen Pond's success as a sediment trap may prove its eventual downfall.

"It's working. That's why the trap is almost full," Hall said. "But there's nobody stepping forward to say 'we're going to pay to manage this.' The closest they're ever going to get to a solution is in this process. All the people who can help are sitting around a table and are talking about this. A whitewater park is just a part of it."

According to the land trust, river restoration near Hulen Meadows would improve the health of the floodplain, restore fish and wildlife habitat and help control flooding.

"The location is in dire need of some habitat restoration," Smith said. "The whitewater park and its funding will help with the restoration of the pond. The Wood River Land Trust and private funding can help with conservation."

A well in the works?

The proposed well at the Sun Peak area would help supply water to the two one-million-gallon tanks north of Ketchum used for fire protection in and around the city. The reservoirs are filled from the Big Wood well, north of Adams Gulch Road, with backup water from the Northwood well, off Saddle Road.

"We would like to have a [second] well closer," Hall said. "It would be so much more efficient from a pumping point of view."

He said the well would also provide additional redundancy for emergencies or population expansion.

He said asking for another well doesn't mean asking for more water, which wouldn't be allowed under the city's existing water rights.

The Idaho Department of Water Resources would determine whether a new well would impact water supply and whether that could prohibit its construction.

The city is working on a memorandum of understanding with the Hulen Meadows Homeowners Association to clarify rights and responsibilities. But an MOU may not be enough assurance for some Hulen Meadows homeowners. The association's legal team is in discussions with the city's legal counsel to address concerns about protection of water supply and any other potential adverse affects of a new diversion.

"We want to have some recourse to protect our water," said David Puz, president of the homeowners association's board of directors. "[Lawyers] are creating binding language, exchanging documents, to see if we can come together. We need a legal agreement."

Puz said the board, on behalf of the homeowners association, made protection of its water supply a top priority.

"We weren't going to deal with the whitewater park until we deal with the protection of the water supply," he said. "The mayor has been very forthcoming and is in contact with me, and we have both agreed that we want to work toward an agreement. I want it to be proactive, not confrontational."

Puz estimates that more Hulen Meadows homeowners are opposed to the whitewater park than for it.

"The location is what they're opposed to more than anything else," he said. "They thought, 'Do we really want a whitewater park at the only entrance to Hulen Meadows?'"

Of those in favor of it, he said, many support it because of the pond-management aspect of the plan.

He said bundling all the components makes it hard to separate out the aspects to evaluate their merits or drawbacks.

"There are a lot of issues, and these are really important issues to the people of Hulen Meadows," he said.

Though the affected parcel of land is publicly owned, Puz fielded concerns about parking issues, congestion, restroom facilities and other impacts.

"As you approach Hulen Meadows, it becomes more rural," Puz said. "We like that. That's why we moved here. To put a whitewater park here kind of ruins that. Are we going to be looking at fanny cans? What are we going to be looking at?"

Hall said the city continues to engage all parties as the process unfolds.

"People, according to their lifestyles and their values, have different opinions about what they want to see there," he said. "We're trying to do our best to manage the views of all stakeholders."

Rebecca Meany:

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