Wednesday, January 22, 2014

River park project is way out of scale


    Ketchum submitted its environmental assessment for a river park in Hulen Meadows to the Bureau of Land Management last week. Soon, there will be a public review of whether the river park should/should not be built.
    Most North Valley residents are confused about the project, not surprising given Ketchum’s tactics of   omission, politically correct claims, misdirection and some outright lies.  Big government politics have come to the Wood River Valley.
    The pond at Hulen Meadows is a rural, quiet area in the county visited from May to October by, conservatively, 1,000-plus hikers, bikers, fishermen, kayakers, families, paddle-boarders, swimmers, fauna lovers and dog walkers.  Ketchum and its partner, the Wood River Land Trust, say the park has been designed to “provide high-quality continuous habitat and connectivity of wild lands, retain undeveloped landscapes, and protect scenic corridors.”  

Ketchum is in megalomania land with this project. 

    The truth is that the Hulen Meadows pond would become Ketchum’s money-making municipal amusement. The city’s Master Plan proclaims it would be the park’s “primary user.” It would hold events and classes and charge for them. It would have interpretive signage about Ketchum’s history, an 8-foot wide walking loop that could be hardscaped, three parking lots (150 cars) and at least seven permanent manmade features that would effectively destroy elk habitat and absorb 70 percent of open space. In essence, Ketchum would create the park as an extension of itself, a “venue to create a unique attraction for the city.”
    On a different note, a little known part of the city’s application to the BLM would enable it to drill a well at Sun Peak that would reduce its pumping expenses and provide water for future growth. For over a year, the city has stonewalled an agreement with Hulen Meadows to stop well operations at any time they affect Hulen Meadows’ water supplies. The city recently repeated, “Ketchum will never sign such an agreement.”
    On the positive side, common goals of all involved in this project include:  1) Excavate the pond for flood mitigation and restored recreation use. 2) Rebuild drop structures for river health that would, by happy coincidence, provide great whitewater waves for kayakers.  3) Build a pedestrian bridge that would divert traffic from Sage Road and provide safe access to the pond for families with their kids and dogs, people with disabilities, and all the other recreationists who traditionally use the area.  
    But Ketchum will not accept this. There will be no river park, says the city, if it’s unable to get what it wants:  220 acres and yet another development project under its control.  The WRLT, the city’s background partner, is going along with the city, despite obvious contradictions to its mission. The city has a heavy hammer!   
    Ketchum has already spent over $600,000 to design the river park, roughly half in city funds, the rest in donations. Construction is estimated at $2,600,000, not including water rights. There’s the kids’ splash park ($150,000), interpretive signs ($25,000), a picnic shelter ($75,000), west parking lot ($60,000), and more.  Maintenance costs are not budgeted. If the project were pared down to what everyone agrees is necessary, construction would drop to approximately $1,000,000.  Water rights, except for the well, might not be needed. Maintenance would be diminished.
    Ketchum is in megalomania land with this project.  The Hulen Meadows recreation and flood mitigation area has existed for 23 years. It is slowly drying up because of failure by the originators, including Ketchum, to adhere to their 1990 agreement to maintain it. Here is an opportunity to make good, however, by all concerned.
    The BLM, the public and Ketchum will decide this project. The BLM will determine if the design protects resource values, such as wildlife habitat, river health, and open space, and does not have negative social and economic impacts. Public comments during the environmental assessment process will influence approval of the project: all of it, some, or none.
    Ketchum—and the WRLT—have decided to go for the whole expensive, large-scale hog. They could, however, be heroes if they shift to a scaled-down approach, i.e. restore the pond to what it has been for most of its life: a quiet, rural, get-away spot, helpful for flood and fire, a wildlife and bird habitat, welcome to dogs, hikers, bikers, water enthusiasts, and fishermen.  They just need to commit to the plan originally sought by the WRLT in 2008 before it made its bargain with Ketchum.
    The choice is clear: You either protect the river and scenic open space while protecting downstream homeowners from floods and providing whitewater flow for kayakers, or you cover the area with urbanized, permanent and artificial structures that primarily serve the city of Ketchum.  It’s as simple as that.

    Jima Rice is a business consultant who lives in Hulen Meadows, north of Ketchum.

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