County, city, volunteer groups look to renovate John Shields park, make it more accessible for all
Sun., Feb. 26, 2023
Born with a rare birth defect, one which prevented the formation of his sacrum, Tyler Byers has used a wheelchair his entire life.
The 40-year-old father of three is an avid racer; last year he completed six marathons. He kayaks and skis. He’s climbed and generally looks to be outside, with his children, as much as possible.
Still, there are infrastructural limitations to where and when he can be in nature.
“Those kind of opportunities for people with disabilities, it’s really important to get outside,” he said. “The Centennial Trail is great, but it’s not quite nature.”
Byers was excited when he heard about a plan to improve access, of all kinds, at John H. Shields Park. The 26-acre park, which is jointly owned by the city of Spokane and Spokane County, sits alongside the Centennial Trail, is near the river and in addition to offering easily accessed climbing is close to mountain biking and hiking trails.
“Shields Park is kind of the Swiss army knife of parks,” Spokane County Paul Knowles said. “It’s got so much going on.”
Despite all it offers, the park has a reputation of neglect. More often than not, broken glass litters the ground. Dumped trash clogs the parking area and it’s not uncommon to find drug paraphernalia in the bushes.
“It’s not exactly somewhere where you’re like, ‘I really want to take my kids,’ ” Knowles said.
In April, Byers wrote the county in support of the Make Beacon Hill Phase 2 project, which would renovate both Camp Sekani Park and John H. Shields Park, cleaning up the trash and improving the trails, making them more accessible for Byers and everyone else. The roughly $1 million project will be funded partly through state grants and partly through private grants and donations.
“As a wheelchair user and father to three elementary school-aged children, I am really excited by the vision and promise of this park, in particular the wheelchair -accessible natural-area features and adaptive climbing access pathway,” Byers wrote. “While we are lucky to live in an area with abundant access to natural areas all around us, there are very few such areas that are wheelchair accessible where I can develop these types of memories with my children. “Additionally, I’m excited that other children with disabilities may have the opportunity to share the appreciation of the great outdoors with their own parents, siblings, and other family members.”
The project is moving forward with the support of several local nonprofits, including the Bower Climbing Coalition. The BCC, which maintains outdoor climbing equipment throughout the Spokane region, is holding its annual fundraiser Sunday. Some proceeds will go toward the Make Beacon Public project (see sidebar).
“Beyond just crag maintenance we want to make a foray into access and getting as many people out as we can,” said Kristin Wenzel, the president of the Bower Climbing Coalition. “So a large part of our fundraising goal for this event is to be able to donate toward the John Shields Park project.”
The John Shields Park has a long climbing history. The park was purchased in 1987 with the Spokane Mountaineers donating $20,000 toward the purchase while the county paid $30,000, according to a 1986 Spokesman-Review article. At the time, the primary reason for the park’s formation was preserving access to the granite rock outcroppings known as Minnehaha Rocks, a popular destination for Spokane climbers since at least the 1940s, according to S-R archives. Renowned Spokane climbers John Roskelley, Chris Kopczynski and Kim Momb all practiced their craft there. The land was privately owned by Jean Betts, however, necessitating public conservation as she considered a sale. When she sold the land to the county, she asked that it be named John H. Shields Park in memory of her grandfather.
That purchase secured access and the 1986 S-R article noted that “litter will be removed, roads will be destroyed and seeded with grass and graffiti will be cleaned from rocks.”
The Make Beacon Public Phase 2 project is the newest iteration of that effort. To fund that work, the county has applied for a Washington State Recreation & Conservation Office grant. While they haven’t received the money, Knowles said the project is highly ranked. If all goes as planned, the project will be completed in the fall of 2024, he said.
The project will improve the surface of the trails going to the rock faces, making access for adaptive climbers possible. Per the project plan, there will also be a bouldering park, paid for by the Roskelley Foundation and similar to the one in Riverfront Park. There would also be better signage explaining the park’s history. The project will include more lighting and expanded parking, Knowles said.
Part of a successful RCO project application is showing that local organizations can and will support the project. Knowles said the city and county have received $185,000 in private funds from various organizations.
In line with its genesis, climbing access is a key plank to the conservation efforts, Knowles said.
“Shields Park and Minnehaha Rocks is a very accessible climbing area. Climbing by its nature typically doesn’t lend itself to accessibility,” Knowles said. “Here we have a situation where we have some prime climbing routes that are really good for adaptive climbing which is fairly accessible with some minor improvements to the pathways moving up.”
Myers, whose children are between 8 and 11, hopes that he can soon go to Minnehaha Rocks with them and try adaptive climbing outside.
“It sounds pretty cool,” he said. “If we could get out of the gym and into a real rock setting, that would be a gas.”
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