Develop or conserve?
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe answered that lingering question on Thursday by purchasing a 48-acre parcel of agricultural land in the Latah Valley along U.S. Highway 195.
The tribe’s plans include “preservation, restoration and access,” with an ultimate goal of promoting the return of salmon.
The acquisition is “an important opportunity for the Tribe to re-establish a presence in our aboriginal territory,” Coeur d’Alene Tribal Chairman Chief James Allan said in a statement. According to the tribe, historical records show land in the area would have been used as a salmon camp during summer and fall.
The purchase price was not disclosed. The land was referred to most recently as the “Pilcher property,” due to owner and developer John Pilcher, the former chief operating officer for the City of Spokane.
The acquisition ends a long stretch of uncertainty regarding the future of the property, which constitutes 48 of the final 150 agriculturally zoned acres of land in the city of Spokane. It sits between Latah Creek and the bottom of High Drive Bluff Park.
Pilcher had pursued two possible outcomes for the property since 2016 when he filed an application for a housing development and nominated it for a Spokane County Conservation Futures grant.
The property appeared poised for development when Pilcher received conditional approval to subdivide the property into 96 lots two years ago.
The conservation effort was at risk of failing as several avenues for funding were pursued and abandoned for a multitude of reasons.
In March, an attorney representing Pilcher warned “we’re near the end of the time that we can hold the property off the market.” Reached by phone on Thursday, Pilcher directed a request for comment to co-owner and attorney Taudd Hume. Hume did not return a message seeking comment as of press time.
But opponents of the development feared the impact it could have on traffic on U.S. 195, and environmental advocates worried that it would tarnish culturally and ecologically significant land.
“The (High Drive) Bluff and that property in particular serve as a pretty critical wildlife corridor to the South Hill … The Bluff is 500 acres, so adding 48 acres to the bottom expands the passage and prevents so much of it from being cut off,” said Trevor Finchamp, president of Friends of the Bluff.
Conservation groups, who sprung into action after the 2019 approval for residential development, lauded the tribe’s purchase on Thursday.
The Latah Environment, Agriculture & Fisheries Heritage Project, or LEAF, is a coalition of nonprofits and citizens that formed in 2020 in an attempt to conserve the property. It reached out to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in January to see if it would be interested in acquiring the land and assisted it over the course of negotiations with Pilcher’s JRP Land, LLC.
“This is a unique piece of property at a unique place and time. There are no other 48-acre pieces of open space like this along lower Hangman Creek, so we’re thrilled that one of the local tribes has been able to secure this acquisition,” Marc Gauthier, a member of the LEAF Heritage Project, said in a statement.
The city of Spokane had also considered purchasing and conserving the property, but the financial hit taken by Spokane Parks and Recreation during the pandemic made it implausible.
“I am happy that this unique, historic land will be preserved for the entire community under tribal stewardship,” Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs told The Spokesman-Review.
Conservation advocates have pledged to support the tribe’s stewardship of the property.
Dave Schaub, executive director of the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy, which is part of the LEAF group, said the early conversations with Pilcher and the tribe’s initiative to purchase the land for cultural heritage and conservation provide a benefit to all in Spokane.
“We should all be delighted with this outcome,” he said.
Finchamp said the property was historically used by Indigenous tribes “and there’s incredibly beautiful and heartbreaking stories that took place there.”
“It’s nice to see the property going back into their hands when it’s such a culturally significant area,” he said.
In its announcement, the Coeur d’Alene tribe highlighted not only the property’s historical meaning, but its future potential.
“This property will provide a unique opportunity for the Tribe to carry the message of salmon restoration further downstream in Hangman (Latah) Creek and across the state line into Washington,” said Tribal Natural Resources Director Caj Matheson. “The Coeur d’Alene Tribe is pleased to be returning to its aboriginal territory and waterways; (our focus) is, and will always be, on returning salmon to these waterways and all of the different ways that can be achieved.”
The purchase comes in a year when Spokane has grappled with record-high home prices and calls for increasing the housing supply.
Finchamp said The LEAF Heritage Project thoroughly discussed the property’s potential use as housing.
“We’re not anti-housing. We realize what Spokane is going through. The city is growing very quickly and a lot of the people who are moving here are moving here because they love the open space and the natural wilderness that surrounds us,” Finchamp said. “We have to balance the need for conservation with the need for new housing.”