A 1,000-acre former horse ranch along the Coeur d’Alene River, once owned by real estate developer Marshall Chesrown, could be headed for the birds.
Black Lake Ranch is known for its miles of white vinyl pasture fencing, visible to cyclists along the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game sees the potential for turning the ranch’s low-lying fields into valuable wetlands, creating feeding areas for the thousands of tundra swans that migrate through the area each spring, as well as habitat for herons and other resident waterfowl.
The wetlands restoration also would improve water quality in Black Lake, one of the chain lakes along the Coeur d’Alene River.
The state doesn’t have money to buy the privately owned ranch, but is proposing to trade 1,400 forested acres south of St. Maries for it.
“We’ve been interested in trying to acquire this property for years, so that we could work together with other agencies to clean it up,” said Kathy Cousins, a Fish and Game mitigation biologist. “If it goes back into private ownership, it would probably be a long time before it comes on the market again.”
Chesrown developed the Club at Black Rock, a gated golf community on Lake Coeur d’Alene, started the work to create Kendall Yards in central Spokane and built other projects often aimed at wealthy, second-home owners. He raised quarter horses at the ranch, but lost most of his fortune after the real estate market crashed in 2008. State officials are working on the proposed trade with the current owner, Minnaloosa Land Co.
“We would absolutely love it if Fish and Game got a hold of the property,” said Bob Martinson, who lives near Black Lake Ranch. “This is exactly what we’ve been hoping for.”
Martinson and his wife, Debbie, live on Black Lake, which gets agricultural runoff from the adjacent ranch. He’s spent 15 years as a citizen activist working on water quality issues on the 400-acre lake.
Some summers, the couple get blue-green algae blooms around their dock, which keep their grandchildren and their dogs from swimming in the lake.
Black Lake has a decadeslong history of the toxic blooms. The ranch contributes to the problem by collecting nutrient-rich water from the pasture and pumping into the lake, said Scott Fields, water resources program manager for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, which also supports the proposed land swap.
The ranch’s pasture and hay fields are historic wetlands, which were ditched and diked to create drier ground, Fields said. Water is collected from the ditches and pumped into Black Lake at three different spots.
On Monday, the ranch’s pastures were covered with standing water. The water pouring into Black Lake from the ranch’s pumps was brown and foamy.
“I don’t know of anyone in the area that doesn’t want those pumps stopped,” Martinson said, who praised the ranch’s current owners for working with the state on a land trade. “If that property is sold again, someone could put 800 or 900 head of cattle on it.”
The ranch also provides wildlife habitat as it’s relatively free of historic mining waste, said Kristin Larson, a watershed coordinator for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
About 18,000 acres of the Coeur d’Alene River’s floodplain is polluted with lead and other heavy metals that washed down the river from Idaho’s Silver Valley. Each spring, tundra swans die of lead poisoning from feeding in the marshes along the river.
The soil at Black Lake Ranch has low lead levels, so it could provide hundreds of acres of safe feeding areas for waterfowl, Larson said.
If the swap goes through, “it has great potential to do good for fish and wildlife,” Cousins said. And, “the recreational opportunities are massive.”
Parts of the ranch parallel the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, a rails-to-trails route that attracts thousands of cyclists each year.
In addition to the agricultural lands, the ranch contains 330 acres of forested uplands that could be used for hiking or hunting.
Improving Black Lake’s water quality would also improve fishing in the lake, which has limited public access at this point, Cousins said. No buildings would be included in the trade.
The 1,400 acres of state land proposed for trade are in scattered timber parcels south of St. Maries, which were acquired for deer and elk habitat. The properties have been on Fish and Game’s disposal list since 1990.
Wetlands are relatively rare compared to forested habitat, Cousins said.
“We’re always losing wetland habitat, so anything we can do to protect and enhance wetlands is important,” she said.