Saving the Sled Hill
From the Winter 2023 Issue
Kaniksu Land Trust working to preserve a favorite winter landmark
Before groomers and six-packs and high-speed detachable chairlifts, when a rope tow run by an old car engine provided sufficient elevation gain, Pine Street Hill was Sandpoint’s ski area. Nearby and free, it continued to be a winter recreation destination of choice for sledders even after Schweitzer opened and skiers migrated there. But when the long-time landowners put it up for sale in 2019, Pine Street Hill was closed to public use. Sandpoint lost its sledding hill.
Now Kaniksu Land Trust is rallying the community to reclaim its lost recreation destination. Locals have attended fundraising events and made donations big and small. Many of these are from donors who have never contributed to the trust before, or even heard of it.
And that’s no surprise. KLT didn’t always have snowy recreation as part of its mission. At its founding in 2002, the purpose of what was then the Clark Fork–Pend Oreille Conservancy was to support Avista in mitigating the environment-altering effects of the Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge dams. For the better part of the next decade, it was focused on protecting the fisheries of the Clark Fork and its tributaries.
In 2012, the trust’s board decided that it could better conserve land by connecting people more strongly to that land. It changed its name to Kaniksu Land Trust—which is conveniently less of a mouthful than its original name—and it broadened its mission to “Caring for the lands and people of the Kaniksu region, today, tomorrow, and forever.”
Then and now, private landowners contact KLT to help them conserve their lands for a defined purpose, often wildlife conservation or forest health. Many of these conserved lands continue to be productive forest or agricultural lands, and their owners continue to pay taxes on them. But they are protected forever from commercial or residential development.
Of the 30 properties KLT has conserved, only two are open to the public. Pine Street Woods is the better known as it is close to town and easy to access for people with a wide variety of physical abilities. The other public parcel is near Clark Fork and is used for educational activities with its schools. Partnerships with more than a dozen community organizations have created trails for hiking, skiing, and biking, as well as education and recreation programs for school children and adults. “The power of KLT is the power of our partnerships,” said Katie Cox, the trust’s executive director.
But the “and people” addition to the mission has led KLT beyond Pine Street Woods and beyond the borders of its many conserved properties as well. Its staff support “rewild the play-yard” programs in local schools. The Kaniksu Folk School “seeks to foster an ethic of stewardship through offering classes in traditional skills and craft,” according to its coordinator, Hilary Petterson. Further up the Clark Fork, in Sanders County, Montana, KLT is working with federal, county, and nonprofit partners to help grow the recreation economy of Thompson Falls. This summer it was even involved in rallying its partners so they could together replace the school district’s suspended summer lunch program.
And as the cost of housing has gone out of reach for almost everybody earning local wages, KLT anticipates becoming a community housing trust as well. Such a trust will enable local workers to own and build equity in homes on land that is leased from the trust. Working as usual with numerous partners, KLT has already located an appropriate piece of land. If all goes as planned, the process of finding investors and donors will begin early in 2023.
Not all projects have gone perfectly. Plans for Kaniksu Land Trust to foster public use of the Sand Creek corridor south of the Popsicle Bridge ran into woes with stormwater management, and the trust continues to look for a partner that can provide the necessary expertise to continue.
Neighbors of Pine Street Woods have been concerned about users spilling over onto their private property, and access to some adjacent conserved land has been closed because users have not stayed on trails. For the owners of these properties, “the number one priority is wildlife habitat and forest health,” said Regan Plumb, KLT’s conservation director. “As we expand trail access, we need to remember that it’s private property and respect the land.”
These difficulties along the wide variety of projects have led some to speculate whether the trust has wandered beyond the edges of its mission. Do all these activities really support land conservation?
Cox and Plumb have no doubt that they do. “Our embracing of community conservation has actually enhanced and accelerated our core conservation efforts. Our organization has become more relevant to more people,” said Cox. They point out that the trust conserved 4,000 acres over its first 20 years, and already has another 4,000 in the pipeline. And “it’s grown the amount that our organization receives in contributions exponentially over the years,” added Cox.
Now, other organizations are considering KLT’s success and wondering how they can emulate it. Last summer, the directors of several western states’ USDA Rural Development programs visited Pine Street Woods to hear about KLT’s many initiatives and meet some of the partners. In September, the trust was asked to make a presentation at the Idaho Rural Success Summit in Twin Falls.
The trust’s success seems to come from its long-term view. As Plumb put it, “We hope to foster an ethic of conservation stewardship in the general public in order to assure that we continue to have a conservation minded community into the future.”
How better to do that than to help a community recover the sledding hill they used for decades? Retaining the option to fly keister over teakettle, snow packing into your jacket and boots before you plant your face in a cold white hole, may be the best of all possible motivators.