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Monday, October 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Former Facebook engineer buys 100 acres in Coeur d’Alene, promises public access

Hiking the forested hills above his home, Jason Evans pauses to speak enthusiastically about Idaho’s state tree, the western white pine.

So far, he’s found about 20 of the large pines on the 100-acre parcel of land overlooking Coeur d’Alene. The pines, prized for the straightness of their grain, structural usefulness and beauty, once dominated the North Idaho landscape. But decades of heavy logging combined with a deadly disease introduced from Europe decimated the state’s namesake tree.

Evans knows this because he took a forestry class. He took the class, in part, because in August he bought 100 acres of land on Canfield Mountain overlooking Coeur d’Alene Lake and the Rathdrum prairie.

The 45-year-old bought the land, with cash, because he was looking for moral clarity.

“It’s a chance to do something that is unambiguously positive for society,” he said of the purchase.

Now he’s in the process of building a network of biking and hiking trails open to the public.

The University of Idaho graduate was a high-level engineer for Facebook. He helped design, maintain and improve much of the code that underlies the massive social network. In 2013, he was featured in a Wired article for his work and he designed the open source code that handles the memory in Android phones worldwide.

“I feel like a lot of the engineering work I did there was positive,” he said.

But those positive things were always in tension with the increasing amorality of a company accused of blithely selling troves of consumer data, promoting fake news and, as reported Thursday, allowing children to recklessly spend their parents’ money on online games without parental permission.

For Evans, who said he judges the morality of his actions on whether they benefit other people, trying to reconcile his work with the company’s actions became too much.

He left Facebook in 2017. Now he is a freelance developer. He, his wife and son had already moved to Coeur d’Alene in 2015. Adjacent to them was a nearly 100-acre plot that had, several times, been slated for development by Marvin Erickson.

Evans loves to hike and mountain bike. The 100 acres, which abuts national forest land, was already widely used by hikers and bikers. But it existed in mostly a feral state. Dirt bikes, racing up and down steep banks, cut deep gashes into the hillsides and mountain bikers cut trees down to make jumps and carved a spiderweb of trails, many steep and prone to erosion.

The former owner, Erickson, gained some notoriety in 1999 for cutting a Z-shaped road on the face of the mountain to access his home. After the City of Coeur d’Alene blocked his planned housing development, he clear-cut a large, visible section of the mountain.

When Erickson decided to sell the land, Evans jumped at the chance.

“I was in the right time, the right place and I had the finances to do it,” Evans said.

Now he’s working with the City of Coeur d’Alene and the Lake City Trail Alliance to develop a system of mountain biking and hiking trails.

“It was really a huge asset to the public that Jason was willing and able to purchase this property for the purpose of recreational trails,” said Monte McCully, the trails coordinator for the City of Coeur d’Alene.

Chris Caro, a board member of the Lake City Trail Alliance and the owner of the Coeur d’Alene Bike Co., is also working with Evans to design and build trails throughout the property. The hope is to have between 10 and 15 miles of trails when it’s done. Caro hopes the majority of that work is done within three years. Evans thinks the work could stretch on as long as 10 years but hopes it’s done within five.

“It’s a very special thing he’s doing,” Caro said. “Especially in these times when we’re losing access, it seems.”

The Lake City Trail Alliance will help Evans design and build the trails. Perhaps more important, the nonprofit trail group will educate users and make sure the land isn’t abused.

The fact that the land is privately owned is beneficial in its own way, Caro said.

“When you don’t have to cut through bureaucracy, it’s pretty awesome,” he said.

But there is a tension inherent on any land that is privately owned but publicly accessible, one Evans knows well.

“I’m the weak link in the whole system, at least from the community’s perspective,” he said

Although Evans may have the best of intentions, it’s possible that he will change his mind. Or he could die and his heirs could shut down public access.

“Until somebody else takes it over, I can’t promise it’s going to be here forever,” Evans said.

That’s why he’s trying to get widespread community buy-in and support for the trail project. Eventually, he like the city to purchase the land from him.

“The community needs to use and enjoy this enough to support the tax burden,” he said.

The plan is in its infancy, but Evans imagines the land being well-developed and maintained before any sale. He said his goal in selling the land would be to “have the community value and care for what it acquires” and to offset some of his costs, although he said he has no expectation of it being a “financially lucrative endeavor.”

There is some precedent for private ownership – with allowed public access – leading to public ownership. Tubbs Hill, in the center of downtown Coeur d’Alene, was for decades a patchwork of private and public land, McCully said. From the 1960s onward, the land was sold or donated to the city.

Still, it’s a potentially uneasy situation. In Spokane, for instance, many of the popular mountain biking trails on Beacon Hill are on private land.

In the Canfield case, there are a number of ways Evans could proceed, McCully said. He could donate the land, in which case the city could take it instantly. Selling the land would take longer and require city council approval.

Evans could also put it in a land conservation trust, which would allow him to own the land while also making it impossible to develop. Finally, Evans could grant the city easements throughout his property, corresponding to the trails.

All that remains to be decided.

On Thursday, after hiking throughout the snowy forest, Evans sat in his home, his 9-year-old son’s toys spread across the kitchen counter. Since he purchased the land in August, he said, he’s spent around 1,000 hours working on the land – removing trash, cataloging trees, imagining potential trails.

“That’s one of the struggles with working with computers,” he said. “You sit there and stare at a screen all day and what did you create?”

He mentions again the code he wrote that runs the memory system in millions of phones spread across the world.

“I’ve done some good with my work and it’s benefited the world,” he said. “But you can’t see it.”

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