Proposed trail would carry cyclists along Pend Oreille River

Liz Johnson-Gebhardt of Priest Community Forest Connection stands near Priest River in 2014 while talking about creating a 26-mile, nonmotorized trail from Dover to Old Town, Idaho. “Having the National Park Service on board gives you clout,” she said. (Kathy Plonka)
Liz Johnson-Gebhardt of Priest Community Forest Connection stands near Priest River in 2014 while talking about creating a 26-mile, nonmotorized trail from Dover to Old Town, Idaho. “Having the National Park Service on board gives you clout,” she said. (Kathy Plonka)

OLD TOWN, Idaho – From his office window, Steve Linton sees a growing number of cyclists on U.S. Highway 2, who share the road with heavy traffic that includes logging trucks, RVs and boat trailers.

“It’s become a really popular bike route,” said Linton, a business owner in Old Town, Idaho. “I just wish we could provide an alternate route for them.”

That’s the goal of the Pend Oreille River Passages Trail, a community-led effort to build a nonmotorized trail along 26 miles of Highway 2. The trail would follow the Pend Oreille River, linking the Idaho communities of Old Town, Priest River, Laclede and Dover, and traversing a corridor rich in scenery and history.

Before sawmills and homesteads sprung up along the Pend Oreille River, Canadian explorer David Thompson paddled down the river in the fall of 1809, visiting the Kalispel Tribe’s ancestral homelands.

Local residents have dreamed of the trail for at least 15 years, but funding to build it proved elusive.

The project was revived last year, when the nonprofit Priest Community Forest Connection received a National Park Service grant for technical assistance with the trail. The non-cash grant provides help in areas such as trail design, community participation and identifying project financing.

“Having the National Park Service on board gives you clout,” said Liz Johnson-Gebhardt, executive director of the Priest Community Forest Connection.

More than 50 people showed up at a recent workshop to discuss ideas for the Pend Oreille River Passages Trail. They pictured the trail as an asset for local residents, as well as a destination for cyclists and other nonmotorized users.

“I think it would be a big attraction,” said Diane Brockway, a Dover city councilwoman. “It would be good for the little towns along the way.”

The Inland Northwest already has a biking culture, with the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes and the Centennial Trail drawing a wide array of users, she said. And U.S. 2 already draws its share of cyclists, said Brockway, who has ridden her bike from Dover to Priest River.

But it isn’t a bike-friendly route, she said. She spends so much time watching for traffic that she doesn’t get to appreciate the views of forested hillsides, nesting ospreys or basalt outcroppings along the river. She’s also on the lookout for woody debris from logging trucks, which get concentrated on the highway shoulders. The debris is hazardous to the skinny tires of road bikes.

Tourists already visit the Pend Oreille River for boating and rafting, said Doug Wagner, a Priest River city councilman who also supports the trail. The trail would give them reason to stay longer, and perhaps include a visit to Priest River’s historic district, its restaurants or its museum, which includes a forestry information center.

“We’re one of the last true timber areas,” Wagner said.

At a July 15 workshop, local residents will have the opportunity to look at maps and make suggestions for potential trail routes. Organizers are eager to get the trail concept included in local governments’ transportation plans, so when roads are rebuilt, rights-of-way can be set aside to accommodate future sections of the trail.

“As much as we can, we’d like to get the trail off of the highway,” Johnson-Gebhardt said. “But there are a lot of topographical challenges.”

In some areas, the trail could follow utility easements and incorporate existing parks along the river. In other areas, there’s not much room between the highway, a railroad spur that follows the river and the shoreline.

“That’s all part of the investigation,” said Don Davis, a planner for the Idaho Transportation Department, who also has been involved in the project.

As valuable as the trail would be for tourism, local residents will benefit the most, predicted Linton, the Old Town business owner.

“The health benefits would be huge,” he said.

About 50 people work for Linton’s company, Tri-Pro Forest Products. As part of a company wellness program, employees are encouraged to be physically active. Linton bikes to work at least once a week during the summer.

If the trail was in place, he thinks other employees would park their pickups and join him.

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