June 26, 2004 in Idaho

Proposal would preserve prairie

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Outgoing Kootenai County Commission Chairman Dick Panabaker has a dream – a vast, green dream.

Without much financial pain, the county could protect the aquifer under the Rathdrum Prairie, decrease field burning, secure large amounts of open space and ensure the region is able to meet its growing wastewater treatment needs well into the future, according to Panabaker.

All of this would be done by buying between 8,000 and 10,000 acres of the remaining Rathdrum Prairie using the same half-cent local sales tax now paying for the county’s new jail, Panabaker said during a special meeting Friday morning at the county courthouse.

“Central Park was started with a little deal, so was Seward’s Folly – Alaska,” Panabaker said. “We have the opportunity to make this the showplace of the West.”

But creating Panabaker’s Prairie won’t be easy. The tax-averse state Legislature must first be convinced to expand the special local-option sales-tax law, which is currently only used to pay for prisons, Panabaker said.

When the county jail is paid off in late 2006, the half-cent sales tax could be continued and diverted into buying up vast tracts of the prairie. The land is currently being turned into housing developments at a rate of 1,000 acres per year, said County Planning Director Rand Wichman. At current rates, it won’t be long before the communities of Hayden, Post Falls, Rathdrum and Coeur d’Alene are fused together in a jumbled web of subdivisions and ranchettes. This will present major challenges for traffic, wastewater treatment and aquifer protection, said Wichman, who supports the idea of preserving the remaining open space.

“We don’t have a lot of time to think about it and wring our hands,” Wichman said. “We’re losing it.”

Much of the farmland is now selling for about $10,000 per acre, Wichman said. Without protections, the prairie will be chopped into 5-acre housing lots. This would mean hundreds, perhaps thousands of septic systems atop an aquifer that provides drinking water for 400,000 people in the region.

The land could be developed into parks, trails and sports fields. Other areas could be restored to native prairie. Some of it would be used as dumping sites for treated wastewater. Increasingly stringent water protection laws and rapid growth have the county and local municipalities scrambling to find acreage for land-application of effluent, rather than discharging into the Spokane River, Panabaker said. The treated wastewater, which is “almost drinking water quality,” Panabaker said, can be applied during the growing season to grasses and crops not consumed by humans or beef cattle.

Some of the preserved acreage might also be an ideal site for a new, larger county fairgrounds and event center, Panabaker said. Much of the current fairgrounds could be sold as commercial property, netting the county upwards of $25 million to pay for a new event center, he said.

Panabaker was voted out of office during the May primary election. But he still has enough time in office to ensure the idea is given a chance, he told the audience of about 40 citizens and elected officials.

“What do you guys think about this? Am I nuts?” Panabaker asked. “I guess the worst thing that could happen to me is I don’t get elected again.”

During the next county commission meeting, Panabaker plans to urge his colleagues to place the open space preservation effort on the November ballot. If voters support the issue – and Panabaker is convinced the idea will have broad support – the Legislature will have a hard time saying no to the half-cent tax. Boise is also looking to use a local option sales tax to pay for mass transit. A combined effort might work, Panabaker said. “We should have the right to tax ourselves for something we want to do.”

The open space preservation might also be a good solution to grass field burning. Farmers are facing increasing pressure to end the practice, which is used to clear bluegrass seed fields and spur new growth. Many are finding their best option is to sell land to housing developers.

One of the farmers is Wayne Meyer, a Republican state legislator who represented much of the area until he was voted out of the office in May. Some believe his loss was due to his support of field burning.

Meyer attended the open space meeting Friday and said farmers would like a resolution from county commissioners supporting the continued use of fire on grass fields.

“That’s what we need more than anything else right now,” Meyer said. “If we’re going to maintain this as open space, we need to have this as a tool.”

Preserving the Rathdrum Prairie sounds like a good idea to Barry Rosenberg, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. Rosenberg would like to see a better definition of how the land will be used, but he plans to send out a special notice to members of the conservation group to discuss the issue. Rosenberg said the letter will be sent soon.

“We can’t wait much longer, because the prairie’s going to be gone,” Rosenberg said.

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