When state-owned land is publicly accessible — but not public

A small town in Idaho searches for ways to keep the surrounding landscape undeveloped.

Members of PELA stand together for a portrait in Rotary Park, near downtown McCall, Idaho.
Angie Smith/High Country News

“That sign is wrong,” David Simmonds said as we snowshoed past the warning: “Danger Thin Ice.” Out on the frozen lake, a few hundred feet from shore, a layer of slush had formed between the 3 inches of ice below and the inch or so of fresh snow on top. Whenever Simmonds shifted his snowshoes or dug the basket of his pole into the snow, a puddle — liquid, cold, unnerving — appeared. It was a Friday morning in early January, and we were on Payette Lake in the center of McCall, a resort town in west-central Idaho.

The lake, shaped like an upside-down “v,” is about 10 miles from tip to top to tip. Earlier that week, Simmonds, president of the nonprofit Big Payette Lake Water Quality Council, had skated 7 miles down the ice with his wife and a friend.

The morning fog lifted as we spoke, revealing the snow-dusted trees and hills that neatly cup the lake’s northeast edge. About 80 feet below us was the end of a pipe, one of the town’s two drinking water intakes. McCall relies entirely on Payette Lake for water; a city report from 2018 estimated that its water system serves the equivalent of over 4,500 households — more than McCall’s resident population of about 3,500 people, due to second homes, hotels and vacation rentals. And demand is likely to nearly double in the next 20 years. Logging, shoreline erosion, wildfires, climate change and development are just some of the factors that can harm water quality. Increasing recreational use can also cause problems.

And new housing brings dangers of its own: Disturbing the soil during construction can wash harmful amounts of nutrients into the water, while population rise will put more pressure on the lake.

Read more: https://www.hcn.org/issues/53.4/north-growth-sustainability-when-state-owned-land-is-publicly-accessible-but-not-public



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High Country News

High Country News


Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.