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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Donor had vision, recipients didn’t

The Spokesman-Review

Virgil McCroskey was a willing giver, but myopic state bureaucrats and townsfolk of yore on the Palouse weren’t willing takers.

Fortunately, McCroskey’s vision and determination were bigger than the naysayers who tried to turn their backs on parkland offered free by McCroskey in the two states that form the region’s picturesque Palouse country – Mary Minerva McCroskey State Park on the Benewah/Latah county line in Idaho and Steptoe Butte nearby in Washington. On Sunday, the region celebrated the 50th anniversary of 5,400-acre McCroskey Park, about 50 miles south of Coeur d’Alene.

Today, McCroskey Park is a hub for picnickers, sightseers, hikers, horseback riders and others who use the 18-mile Skyline Drive that visionary McCroskey carved to gain access to 50 miles of trails. Drinking water is available. Signs and picnic areas are maintained. Directional signs on U.S. Highway 95 point visitors to the park entrance. But it wasn’t that long ago that motorists zipped past the neglected park without knowing it was there.

Inland Northwesterners are indebted to McCroskey, his relatives and other conservationists – to McCroskey, a Colfax pharmacist and adventurer, for spending his fortune to accumulate thousands of acres to donate as parkland in both states and to his family and admirers for forcing parks officials to maintain the Idaho park.

For too many years, the state considered McCroskey Park as nothing but excess baggage, turning down McCroskey’s offer to donate the land twice before finally accepting his gift in 1955 – and then only after the preservationist, then 79, promised to maintain the park for 15 years and to contribute $50,000 for its maintenance. Significantly, two shortsighted North Idaho legislators at the time voted not to accept the contribution because they didn’t want to see the land removed from the tax rolls. And McCroskey outlived the terms of the contract by three months, dying in September 1970 just shy of his 94th birthday.

The park was rundown 18 years later when nephew Bob McCroskey and his wife, Jeri, enlisted a group of North Idaho conservationists into their campaign to force the state to quit claiming interest money from their uncle’s bequeathal and begin maintaining McCroskey Park. A headline of the day told the story: “State neglects donated park, family says: Wilderness area lacks funding, better roads, signs, publicity.”

“Where it may not be a Yellowstone or a Glacier, it is representative of this area as it was,” Jeri McCroskey told the Four County Natural Resources Committee in January 1988, launching a struggle to preserve the park that attracted the support of then state Parks and Recreation director Yvonne Ferrell.

Ultimately, the McCroskey family got all it requested from the state, including its top priority, a highway sign directing motorists to their bachelor uncle’s amazing gift and preserving the memory of his pioneer mother. Virgil McCroskey didn’t live to see his park become a popular recreation spot. But he succeeded in saving a priceless gift until the Inland Northwest learned to appreciate it.

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