Getting people to experience the Spokane River – whether it’s with hip waders, a kayak, raft or canoe – could help protect wildlife habitat, improve understanding of local history, and increase non-motorized access to the river.
That’s the theory of “water trail” proponents, who’ve spent the past year brainstorming ways to raise the 111-mile river’s profile. The trail concept was unveiled at a Tuesday conference sponsored by the Spokane River Forum.
Water trails are gaining traction in urban areas. The concept includes more watercraft put-ins and take-outs, access maps and kiosks about local history, ecology and culture. The end result, proponents say, is recreationists devoted to the river who become powerful advocates for its protection.
“Eighty percent of people think they kind of like the river, but hardly anyone uses it,” said Chris Donley, a fisheries manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Our vision is more people on the river.”
For the past year, 30 stakeholders have been meeting to discuss the water trail concept, including the advantages and potential controversies. The effort grew out of the nonprofit Spokane River Forum, which has taken 300 local residents on river paddling trips over the past two summers.
In many ways, the effort to establish a water trail along the Spokane River mirrors the earlier creation of the 60-mile Centennial Trail, said Andy Dunau, the forum’s executive director.
Most people support public access, he said. But the thorny issues of easements, access and parking must be worked out.
Access conflicts became obvious on the forum’s river trips, Dunau said. Some put-ins and take-outs were marked “informal access” on maps.
In other words, “it’s probably not legal that you’re there, but everyone else is doing it,” Dunau said.
Armed with a $26,000 grant, the stakeholder’s first project was to publish a map with 27 existing, proposed or potential access sites along a 44-mile stretch of river. The map was displayed Tuesday at the conference. It includes an access site near Upriver Dam, which is currently under construction by the city of Spokane, plus a proposed access site in the city’s University District.
The lack of put-in access near downtown Spokane is glaring, said Jeanna Hofmeister, a vice president at the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau. She can picture vendors with kayak or canoe rentals along the tranquil, willow-lined stretches of the river near downtown.
“It would be what people would remember about Spokane,” Hofmeister said.
Other cities are reclaiming the rivers that run through their downtowns, said Donna Erickson, a Missoula author who wrote “Metro Green.” The book is a case study of green space and water trails in 10 North American cities.
“People are seeking rivers as they did in the industrial era, but for other uses. Not to flow logs down, as my grandfather did on the Blackfoot River,” Erickson said, but for public space and recreation.
Putting more people on the Spokane River comes with risks. “We haven’t had our community fall in love with the river. … They litter and they leave junk,” said Hofmeister.
That’s why citizen activism and stewardship are so critical, water trail proponents said. Three local fly-fishing groups recently agreed to watch for poaching along catch-and-release stretches of the Spokane River. They’ll report suspicious activity to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Thirty to 40 percent of the fish tagged for research in the river’s upper stretches disappear into poacher’s creels, said Donley, the fisheries manager. Native redband trout are a particular target. So, putting more fly fishers on the river could actually help the struggling redband population by acting as a deterrent to illegal takes, he said.