Wednesday, July 31, 2013

River park will marry conservation, recreation


    Ketchum’s proposed River Park at Sun Peak is impressive for two reasons: first, because of strong consensus on the potential benefits, and second, because it is moving ahead despite severe federal budget cuts.
    The plan represents a marriage of conservation and recreation, plus the opportunity to improve public safety. The vision was expressed eloquently in an editorial in the Idaho Mountain Express and a letter to the editor by Scott Boettger, executive director of the Wood River Land Trust.
    Conservation is the most important element of our proposed restoration project along the Big Wood River north of the city near Hulen Meadows. As the editorial said, the park needs “to transmit the message that the experience will be fun and will bring people who go there closer to nature. It needs to tell users and passersby that the waters of the Big Wood River are an essential and priceless part of the larger natural world that sustains us.”
    As mayor of the city of Ketchum and chair of the Whitewater Park Committee, we agree completely.
    How does one project meet such diverse goals?
    Plans call for restoring the riverbank and surrounding wildlife habitat, improving the river’s health and reducing the potential for downstream flooding.
    The park would exist on federal property administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The proposed agreement with the BLM calls for the city to maintain Hulen Meadows pond, created when state Highway 75 was realigned in the 1990s. Through an oversight difficult to understand, no one assumed responsibility for maintenance of the pond. It is filling with silt and will soon become a stagnant blight if nothing is done.
The improved river, pond and wildlife habitat would create opportunities for hikers, bicyclists, anglers and dog walkers. It would be fully accessible to people with mobility challenges, an element that has garnered the support of Higher Ground Sun Valley.
As an added bonus, this restoration proposal has attracted the Whitewater Park Committee. Existing sediment diversion structures would be reconstructed in the river to improve water flow and aeration — structures that are ideal to create a 1,500-foot stretch of whitewater. This feature would boost the economy during the spring shoulder season. The controlled environment would give novice kayakers a chance to practice their skills safely.
    Achieving consensus with stakeholders such as the Blaine County Recreation District, Idaho Rivers United, Trout Unlimited Hemingway Chapter and the Wood River Land Trust comes naturally with an environmental project of this significance. In fact, stabilization of this already manipulated section of river is important enough that private donors have funded significant portions of the planning and application process. We are grateful that BLM continues to work in partnership with us on this project in the face of severe federal budget cuts.
    The next step is for the BLM to finish a review of the environmental assessment, and hear public comments. The land would be transferred to the city of Ketchum with appropriate restrictions; if Ketchum were to use the property for anything else, it would lose its rights to the land.
    The project began in 2008. If all goes well, construction will begin next year with completion in summer of 2015.
    Opportunities for public comment to BLM regarding its decision of whether to convey the property to the city will be available soon. We continue to encourage all Blaine County residents to work with us throughout this public process. Please send your thoughts and comments to Jennifer Smith, Ketchum director of parks and recreation, at or call 726-7820.

    Randy Hall is the mayor of Ketchum. Jeff Smull is the chairman of the Whitewater Park Committee.

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