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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Off the Grid: The willow tree at the center of a Sandpoint parks debate

By Ammi Midstokke The Spokesman-Review

The bark of the weeping willow tree is known for its content of salicylic acid and medicinal properties, used for millennia in China before making its way around the globe as an ornamental tree. In Babylon, they were used to secure soil in oases. In Australia, they are now considered a weed.

In a small park in Sandpoint, a willow has become the center of a nascent conflict between city officials and a dissenting voice of the public.

The willow tree sits on top of a knoll in Travers Park, nestled between schools, neighborhoods, the library, churches, and assisted living facilities. The park boasts several ball fields that fill with families during baseball and soccer season, a playground that could use some accessibility upgrades, a skate park, a bike skills course, and a network of paths that is inevitably hosting a walker or two with a tiny dog any time of the day.

The park offers wide views of the Selkirk foothills to the north and an expansive space for play in a city that faces the ever-present crush of population growth and urban development.

It is that growth and development that led to the city’s yearslong process of developing a Parks and Recreation Master Plan with community involvement through 17 public meetings, 67 stakeholder interviews, and electronic and mail surveys with 1,150 responses. The community was clear: It wanted an indoor play space and more accessibility for dogs.

In a celebrated act of generosity, a family donated $7.5 million to the city for the much-needed indoor sports facility. The master plan had determined that Travers Park, in need of upgrading and centrally located, was the optimal location for the facility.

It will house tennis and pickleball courts, but it will also be a dry and safe walking space in the winter. There will be a large room for various events and gatherings. It will be open and free to the public during some operating hours, and is designed to be a flexible space for future activities.

At 8 a.m. on a Sunday, Sandpoint City Councilwoman Deb Ruehle stood on the grass at Travers Park, her bright rain shell a stark contrast to the gray morning.

Signs on the fence read, “City Councilors: Do what’s right!”

What is right is not agreed upon.

Ruehle came out to help the local bike club install a new bike skills park. Behind her was the chain link fence around the future site of the sports complex and the willow tree that has become a flash point. The new building will require the cutting of 20 mature trees and a reduction in the green spaces available to park users.

In a community that, like many others, is experiencing a greater disparity between an affluent influx of residents and those with less economic power, it feels like accessibility to nature is becoming a privilege of the few. But the city believes it is doing what the public wants, barring a few folks singing Joni Mitchell lyrics in the parking lot.

“The democratic process was followed,” Ruehle said. “And, as a council member, I am elected to make fiscally responsible decisions for the city.”

She’s speaking to the nuances of the vetting process for a building site, of contract negotiations and potential for breach, of avoiding the risk of litigation, the hours of countless meetings, analysis, planning and community engagement that preceded a final decision. The process has been complex and long, exhaustive in its endeavors to review resources available and respond to increasing costs of construction. Grants have been awarded for this particular site. To change course could risk losing those as well.

Mayor Shelby Rognstad had a tone of optimism in his voice when asked where the communication broke down.

“We had more public engagement and response than ever before on this project,” Rognstad said.

He’s talking about the response to surveys and the efforts the city has gone to understand public needs. Franky, he said, they were surprised by the last-minute outcry about the trees. The plan calls for planting upward of 60 new trees to replace the 20 that need to be removed.

The new facility promises significant upgrades to the features of the park, including a splash pad, accessible playground equipment and an improved skate park. The renderings show an impressive facility that attempts to meet the differing needs of a diverse demographic. It will be the most inclusive park in the city.

Molly McCahon, a landscape architect who lives in Sandpoint, does not agree.

“There isn’t space to plant that many trees. They’ll be next to buildings and impervious surfaces,” McCahon said.

The grassy knoll with the willow and the radiant red oak will be gone, replaced by a facility that caters to a handful of court sports enthusiasts.

“The park is beautifully designed as it is,” she said.

Her impassioned letters and presence at council meetings did not impact planning, so McCahon chained herself to a tree every day for a week in an attempt to make a stand.

With elections just days away, the park issue has come to overshadow other significant matters of city management, from the need for road improvements to the replacement of an outdated sewage treatment plant (its constant waft making another park space usable by only the most olfactory-tough). The incoming candidates will inherit these projects and the brewing public dialogue.

Mayoral candidate Jeremy Grimm said the public engagement process has been nebulous.

“The trees are emblematic of the larger issue,” he said.

He’s right. The breakdown in communication seems to be a mystery to the city and the voting constituents. It is a growing phenomenon in public discourse made increasingly evident since the pandemic in which differing yet valid experiences are unable to share the same space, or in this instance, park.

Early this fall, a group of young school children could be found beneath the Travers Park willow tree nearly every morning, making crowns from its long tendrils. Now, the park and playground are surrounded by chain-link fencing, soon to be replaced by the new facility. If one stands back far enough, the distant mountains are just visible.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at