A Spokane conservation group has acquired 80 acres in the Spokane Valley near Tower Mountain, including a popular climbing area known as Big Rock and a granite-studded ridgeline with lofty views toward Steptoe Butte.
After more than three years of negotiations, the Dishman Hills Natural Area Association closed a deal Wednesday to swap a similar acreage near Hallett Road with Spokane Investors, LLP.
“Trading our conservation land off Hallett Road was not taken lightly,” said Andrew Ashmore, Dishman Hills association board member. “But Big Rock, which offers southern access to the Dishman Hills area, is a keystone.”
The area has been known as the Rocks of Sharon for decades.
Spokane residents used to ride an electric railroad line that ran south of the Spokane Valley, unloading at a stop called Sharon and hiking up to the rocks for picnics, said Mike Hamilton, DHNAA president.
Since 1994, the association has acquired about 500 acres in the Tower Mountain-Big Rock area, Hamilton said.
The Rocks of Sharon area adjoins Spokane County’s 875-acre Iller Creek Conservation Futures Area, which extends uphill from the Ponderosa neighborhood west of Dishman-Mica Road.
Wednesday’s deal creates about 1,300 acres of Dishman Hills and county land dedicated to natural-area protection and public, nonmotorized recreation, Hamilton said.
Big Rock – which towers 230 feet above the ground to an altitude of 3,576 feet overlooking the Palouse – has been a popular climber training hub for roughly 50 years, said Chris Kopczynski, of the Spokane Mountaineers.
He recalled learning rock moves there as a climbing upstart who eventually topped Mount Everest. The climbers have been trespassing on private land, he said.
The deal also provides access from the south side of Big Rock through a 40-foot easement off Stevens Creek Road.
“There’s little room for parking there, but we’ll work on that later,” Hamilton said.
“We have to do these things in steps. We’ll also have to get a handle on the motorized use that’s going on in there.”
John Bottelli, who administers the Conservation Futures Program for Spokane County Parks, agreed.
“That’s a big point: The motorized use will need to stop,” he said, noting that the county and DHNAA generally share the same management policies.
Spokane County made an unsuccessful bid to acquire the Rocks of Sharon in the mid-1990s.
“It’s been on our radar since the beginning of the Conservation Futures,” Bottelli said.
At that time, Bob Hamacher, spokesman for Spokane Investors, told The Spokesman-Review that Spokane County would be the perfect steward for the land, but he could not agree to the appraised price, which the county could not exceed.
Hamacher could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Jeff Lambert, of the Spokane Mountaineers, partnered with DHNAA and the Inland Northwest Land Trust to work out conservation easements that will restrict development along a stream that runs through the property Spokane Investors acquired from DHNAA.
The deal went through years of complicated legal issues that cost the association of fewer than 300 members about $55,000 in addition to hundreds of hours of volunteer effort, Hamilton said.
“We are a nonprofit group, founded in 1966, that exists through the generosity of donors,” he added.
The association and several other local groups are trying to piece together conservation easements that would secure a wildlife habitat corridor and a recreation trail from Big Rock north through the Dishman Hills to Appleway, Lambert said.