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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Kelly Courtright: Keep public lands in public hands

By Kelly Courtright

There are currently only six publicly owned access roads leading to Lake Pend Oreille between Sandpoint’s Long Bridge and Farragut State Park on the west side. This is 47 miles of shoreline. Most people access this side of the lake because they’re coming from Spokane, Coeur d’Alene or Sandpoint. The east side of the lake is remote and has very limited road access due to steep slopes.

The west side publicly owned access roads that lead to Lake Pend Oreille include: Camp Bay, Green Bay, Garfield Bay, Talache, Bayview and Farragut State Park. If the public loses a single one of these sites by privatization, this is a loss of 17% of public access along this section of the lake.

Within the last 3 weeks, a public fight broke out at Garfield Bay which was caused due to overcrowding. This wasn’t the first time this has happened. Public access to this lake is already strained due to a 15% increase in Bonner County’s population between 2010 to 2020.

Camp Bay Road

Co-Partner of M3 Companies, Bill Brownlee, is in the process of selling lots within his 407-acre subdivision at Camp Bay, a few miles north of Garfield Bay. Lot prices range up to $2.2 million. M3 is requesting that the Bonner County Commissioners, and a judge, permanently vacate the public’s legally owned 50-foot-wide, half-milelong section of Camp Bay Road. The term vacate here means this section of public road would become M3’s private property.

This public road goes through the middle of M3’s land. Again, Brownlee wants to permanently block public access to Lake Pend Oreille on Camp Bay Road. This public land M3 wants to take is 2.93 acres, the size of a football field.

The county can only approve M3’s request if it’s determined to be a public benefit. The County Commissioners have previously stated the reduction in the minimal road maintenance costs is adequate compensation to justify M3’s request. The majority of people and two attorneys speaking at public meetings and submitting written comments disagree with the County Commissioners. Two of the three commissioners recently lost their elections and will be replaced in January 2023.

In 1909, Bonner County selected groups of local people to assist the county in locating new roads. These local groups were called “Viewers.” There was a Viewers group doing similar work for the proposed Camp Bay Road in 1909.

The 1909 Survey Report for Camp Bay Road says, “T.P. on Beach at High Water Line.” T.P. stands for “Terminus Point.” This quoted statement from official county records means the Viewers were stating that Camp Bay Road’s right of way back in 1909 ended at the High Water Line of Lake Pend Oreille.

In 1909, when steamboats were using a dock on Camp Bay long before Albeni Falls Dam was built in 1951, the High Water Line for Lake Pend Oreille was 2,051 feet above mean sea level (msl). This dock allowed easy transport of goods from Camp Bay to Sandpoint. After Albeni Falls Dam was built in 1951, the lake’s high water line rose by 11.5 feet to 2,062.5 msl.

In a May 16, 1986, decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (Swanson v. the United States), the court made a decision that directly affected the ownership of land down to Lake Pend Oreille at Talache. Justice Stephens made 2 important statements in the Swanson case affecting land ownership at Talache. This decision has similar applications to Camp Bay’s Road ownership.

Justice Stevens said: (1) “Before 1950, Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho was a navigable water of the United States with an ordinary high water level of 2,051 feet above mean sea level.” And, (2) “… the landowner held (and holds) title defined by state law as extending to the old, natural high water mark.”

This settled law means the public owns it’s 50-foot-wide right of way on Camp Bay Road past the current 2,062.5 foot msl high water mark to the lower and older 2,051 foot msl elevation. This publicly owned road, which now extends into Lake Pend Oreille, needs to stay in public ownership and doesn’t affect private development. This is an equity issue.

Kelly Courtright of Deer Park is retired after a 30-year career with the Bureau of Land Management. 

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