As posted in the Spokesman Review – March 26th, 2016

Land Swap – Protecting Coeur d’Alene’s Waterways is our Shared Responsibility

The Coeur d’Alene watershed is in crisis. Toxic blue-green algae outbreaks, phosphorus, bacteria, low-oxygen levels, lead, arsenic, cadmium and zinc contamination constitutes the greatest threat to what we value and cherish about the waterways.

The Coeur d’Alene River and lake are assets that drive our economy and contribute to our quality of life, but action is needed now to protect them. Just as the decisions made by Idaho’s Silver Valley mining industry a century ago are affecting us deeply in the watershed today, the decisions we make now will have a profound impact on the region our children inherit. 

Key to this impact is a proposed land swap by the Idaho Department of Fish & Game. The swap proposes trading Black Lake Ranch’s five-mile stretch of former wetlands along the Coeur d’Alene River waterfront for remote timbered land five miles south of St. Maries. The swap would significantly benefit our area’s water quality, hunting, fishing, wildlife, biking, hiking, recreation, accessibility and conservation efforts. 

For centuries, the ranch’s former wetlands were a safe place for migratory birds, waterfowl and swans to gather, breed and nest. For decades, the land has been used for agriculture requiring industrial pumps that tirelessly dump toxins, farm sewage, E. coli, lead, arsenic, fertilizer and heavy metals into Black Lake. A brown and foamy flow fills our waterways, producing a cumulative, devastating impact on Black Lake and the waterways. The impact is not confined to Black Lake, which drains directly into the Coeur d’Alene River, which flows into the lake.

As Black Lake homeowners, we see toxic blue-green algae blooms, slime, dead fish, dead swans and fish with tumors, all tarnishing some of the values we hold so dearly about our area. Our children can’t swim or play in the water or eat the fish. The water can become so toxic we have been advised not to “inhale” it.

This makes Black Lake one of Idaho’s most polluted lakes and places it on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of impaired water bodies. Thankfully, we are at a point where this is still significantly reversible. But all of us have to do our part by supporting the swap. 

Now to us at Black Lake, and the average Idahoan, this land swap may seem like a no-brainer, and in reality it is. However, a politically influential and vocal minority from St. Maries has opposed this arrangement. They are concerned it will affect elk hunting or that the new landowners will poorly manage the land.

The opponents’ concerns and attachment to the area are understandable. Nonetheless, Fish & Game is set to dispose of the land, regardless of the swap’s outcome. Overall, the remote land has a much smaller value to the public and the state than the rare wetlands. The proposed timbered land is not managed well by the Game & Fish, increasing the risk that fire could ravage and destroy its value.

We are presented with a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Sometimes large leaps of progress for all come at a significant cost to the few. Sometimes we must give up something good for something great. 

Multiple independent government agencies and nongovernmental organizations have unanimously determined that the proposed exchange will result in a net environmental benefit. If this land swap does not happen now, we are warned the ranch could be broken into 20 to 40 parcels, with the wetlands never being recovered and the pumps never being shut off.

Parents can understand the difficulty with trying to balance your children’s safety while letting them roam free to enjoy nature. In its current state, Black Lake allows us neither. We are constantly challenged to explain why we can’t play in the lake. How would you explain to your young child that your lake is “dirty”? To do so challenges the reasons we live in this region.

The good news is that the vision of a day when our 3-year-old boy can swim and play in the water carefree may soon be in reach, but we need your help. Please let the state know you support the swap. Without major public support, it won’t happen.

Fish & Game is accepting public comments at r1fa_grants@fws.gov until March 28.