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Board ponders plea to slow boats to suit Upper Priest Lake tranquility

Sun., Sept. 12, 2010, 12:02 a.m.

A powerboat speeds past canoeists at Upper Priest Lake, which is accessible only by foot or by boat. A North Idaho group is proposing a no-wake rule for the lake to keep boats of all styles in step with the area’s scenic designation. (File)
A powerboat speeds past canoeists at Upper Priest Lake, which is accessible only by foot or by boat. A North Idaho group is proposing a no-wake rule for the lake to keep boats of all styles in step with the area’s scenic designation. (File)

A proposal to tone down speeding powerboats at a prized North Idaho scenic area is reviving the decades-old fear that youthful environmentalist zealots who don’t understand the way the world works are trying to discriminate against senior citizens and eventually block all normal people from enjoying the mountains – starting with Upper Priest Lake.

At least that’s the buzz.

The agenda for the Bonner County Waterways Advisory Board meeting set for Thursday morning in Coolin has spawned a wide range of comments at previous board meetings. The sentiments are being amplified on a Priest Lake blog.

But the source of the proposal isn’t an eco-terrorist.

It’s Bob Harwood, 83, a retired university professor who’d been visiting Priest Lake regularly since the early 1960s before buying lakeshore property in 1990.

“This isn’t a radical idea if you look honestly at what people appreciate about Upper Priest Lake and what’s going on,” he said.

Harwood, with the backing of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance and a growing list of supporters, has made his case at the board’s past three regular monthly meetings in Sandpoint.

The proposal: extend the no-wake ordinance already in effect for The Thorofare to include all of Upper Priest Lake.

Current rules already forbid “water skiing” at the upper lake, but many boaters apparently assume that doesn’t include pulling wakeboarders and tubes.

The Thorofare is the narrow 3-mile-long serpentine waterway leading north from Priest Lake to undeveloped Upper Priest Lake.

The main lake is nearly 19 miles long while the upper lake is 3.5 miles long.

“From where I live near the entrance to The Thorofare, it’s been very apparent there’s increasing amount of boat traffic to the upper lake, especially on weekends and holidays,” Harwood said.

“It seemed worthwhile to look at changing the present regulations to deal with the increase and restore a level of tranquility worthy of a place that’s designated a scenic area.”

Harwood convinced the alliance to hire surveyors to record the number of boats going up The Thorofare from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2009. The tally:

Propeller craft: 95.

Paddle craft: 35, although more may have entered before 8 a.m. to avoid other boat traffic.

Personal watercraft: 9.

People: 484.

“If you double all of that, assuming that most of them come out at the end of the day, you’re talking about 280 boats and 970 people passing through The Thorofare. That’s a significant number, and that isn’t even a holiday. We didn’t count the number of boom boxes.”

Harwood suggests that Upper Priest Lake would be an even more valuable and popular destination by preserving its status as a sanctuary from the speed and noise of the main lake.

“The (Bonner County) commissioners simply haven’t kept up with the times in this case,” he said. “They had a sense of what they wanted to have in a scenic area years ago when they prohibited water skiing at the Upper Lake, but that was before they even knew about Jet Skis and boats towing tubes, which are just as bad.”

Mark Sprengel, executive director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, said the no-wake proposal would significantly reduce motorized speeds and create a safer, more enjoyable environment for everyone venturing to Upper Priest Lake as well as being consistent with the surrounding area’s scenic designation.

“I should stress that access would remain available for everyone – motorboats would still be allowed and no one would be excluded from enjoying the upper lake,” Sprengel said.

The Forest Service already has designated the area as “scenic,” providing special protection from logging or other development that would change the views and nature of the area.

Dick Kramer, the Forest Service district ranger for the Priest Lake area, said it’s not uncommon for his staff to get complaints about motorized traffic at Upper Priest Lake, “but what happens on the water is out of our jurisdiction,” he said.

“It’s a controversial issue and as an agency, there’s no reason to be engaged if we don’t have authority.”

On the other hand, he said, “We do have this upper lake, which in my mind is a pristine scenic area. I’ve seen a few other places like this around the country, unique extensions from popular recreation areas, and almost anywhere else there would be more restrictions on speeding boats.”

Harwood said he’s received only a few indications of how the six-member advisory board might officially respond as he’s made his presentations this summer. He said the sentiments ranged from general agreement that personal watercraft should be addressed to “a pretty good tongue lashing” from one panelist regarding any proposal to further restrict motorized users.

“We’re not attempting to deny anybody’s right to go up there,” Harwood said. “It’s just how you enjoy the place and the impact you have on other users when you get there that needs to be addressed.

“There are 18 miles of the main lake where everybody can roar around and do what they want, but we think its time to recognize that Upper Priest Lake is a unique situation, certainly unique in the Northwest.”

Lt. Cary Kelly of the Bonner County Sheriff’s marine division – the rare county official who contacts the public up The Thorofare and Upper Priest Lake during the summer – said he supports the spirit of the proposal.

“I think there are some really good concerns from the people who want to maintain a pristine natural experience up there,” he said. “I think they could accomplish that with a no-wake zone, which would be easier to enforce if it were in place all the way up and into Upper Priest Lake.”

Enforcement is an issue at Upper Priest, partly because the marine patrol’s large twin-engine craft runs the risk of going aground in the shallow Thorofare.

“And if we go way up to the north end of Upper Priest, it puts us so far out of position for responding to problems on the main lake because there’s no quick way to travel through The Thorofare,” Kelly said.

“On weekends, we take our smaller 18-foot boat to Upper Priest, and that’s proved very beneficial.

“We find a lot of people speeding through The Thorofare, and we also meet a lot of people who are very happy to see us there slowing other boats down.”

Kelly, who sits on the advisory board but has no vote, had several other observations from the water level.

“A no-wake zone would pretty much eliminate personal watercraft,” he said. “Frankly, The Thorofare isn’t a good environment for them. To be legal, they have to go so slowly they have trouble maintaining control.”

Meantime, the laws should at least be clarified, he said.

“The ordinance against water skiing is really old,” he said. “That came before there was wakeboarding and pulling tubes. They should all be prohibited at Upper Priest.

“But it’s difficult to make more rules and regulations and get them past the board and the commissioners unless they’re really supported.

“People with kayaks and smaller boats will quickly support it but the marinas and people with bigger boats who want to go faster probably won’t.”

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