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More Than One Point of View

Parks and Rec Students Work With Land Managers, Stakeholders on McCroskey Viewpoint Project

Article by Ralph Bartholdt, University Communications

Photos by Garrett Britton, University Visual Productions

Like a pine-fringed finger, Point Sublime in Mary Minerva McCroskey State Park gestures across the rolling Palouse prairie to Palmer Butte, a knuckle rising from the grasslands east of Farmington, Washington.

With a grand view of its surroundings, Point Sublime was named almost a century ago by Virgil T. McCroskey, the man who found the landmark so enticing he wanted to set it aside for posterity, for others to enjoy.

Chris Zajchowski
Chris Zajchowski, assistant professor of parks, tourism and recreation ecology, assigned students in his class to assist park personnel to contact stakeholders to gather input for a project at Mary Minerva McCroskey State Park.

Now, a University of Idaho class offered by Assistant Professor Chris Zajchowski in the Department of Natural Resources and Society has the expansive view in its sights as state park managers prepare for a picnic shelter at Point Sublime.

And students are learning one of the realities of managing public lands: You can’t please all the people all the time.

“Gathering public input and using that to move ahead, is a big part of what park managers do,” Zajchowski said.

His class has been tasked with apprising stakeholders of improvement plans and finding ways to accommodate park users while still preserving the natural landscape.

“One of the projects being considered by the state is a day use area at Point Sublime, that may include a picnic area, gazebo and paved parking lot, so more visitors can rest, take in the view and enjoy what is right now a pretty bare and rustic spot along the trail,” Zajchowski said.

The trail Zajchowski references is an offshoot of Skyline Drive, a mostly wooded, meandering road, 25-miles long that connects Highway 95 at Marsh Hill north of Moscow with the small, farming community of Farmington. The narrow road winding through the park was built by McCroskey beginning in 1939 and it marks the northeastern edge of the Palouse prairie.

A pharmacist and conservationist, McCroskey bought up land in Latah and Benewah counties along the Idaho-Washington border that was endangered by logging. He stitched his purchases into a 4,400-acre parcel that became the park, naming it after his mother, a pioneer woman who came to Eastern Washington with her husband and children to establish a homestead near Steptoe Butte. When McCroskey gifted the park to the people of Idaho in 1955 after building the road and viewpoints for visitors, it became the third oldest park in the state.

I had to realize there are tradeoffs.Zephryn Andrews, environmental science junior

At first, the state didn’t want his gift. Idaho had no parks department and no funding to take care of the parkland that McCroskey offered. He addressed the legislature three times, battled county commissioners who feared turning the land into a state park would take it off county tax rolls, and kickstarted a publicity campaign that included essays by school children to ensure the legislature would accept his pro-bono proposal.

The real-world challenges that McCroskey faced are included in Zajchowski’s Parks and Recreation coursework.

Zephryn Andrews
Zephryn Andrews, one of Zajchowski’s students, gathered information from stakeholders for the Point Sublime project.

Zajchowski’s class, part of a College of Natural Resources degree program, teaches students how to identify and manage projects on public land, and includes lessons in balancing the interests of conservation and visitors — as well as uncovering funding mechanisms.

“It’s kind of hands-on, real-world instruction where students spend time in the field, write proposals and then work with the entities involved,” Zajchowski said. “They weigh if their projects are feasible, and if they are, who will pay for them.”

For Zephryn Andrews, one of Zajchowski’s students, the course has been an eye opener.

Andrews, a junior studying environmental science, grew up near Seattle with an acute focus on conservation.

“I wanted to make sure vulnerable land would be preserved,” Andrews said.

That often meant limiting access to prevent ill-use of the resource.

Andrews enrolled at U of I for its coursework in restoration ecology and joined Zajchowski’s class on a whim. The class has provided a perspective Andrews had not considered.

Jacqueline Snow
Graduate student Jacqueline Snow’s thesis is focused on Point Sublime and McCroskey State Park.

“I had to realize there are tradeoffs; it’s not just strict preservation but sometimes you have to allow more access to help get money to pay for and maintain the land,” Andrews said.

Case in point: Part of the Sublime land is untouched Palouse prairie never frequented by plow or livestock. The local chapter of the Idaho Native Plant Society — a park stakeholder — has urged that any construction in the area, even a paved day-use area, vaulted toilet or fire pit, could adversely affect the fragile vegetation.

Coincidentally, almost 70 years earlier, McCroskey campaigned to the state to deny access to a neighboring farmer who McCroskey accused of wanting to remove the park’s fence and plow under the old prairie to augment his income. After two years, the state made the farmer replace the fence and prohibited him from further cultivating the park’s grassland.

Park Manager Nate Blackburn said these days any work done in the park requires a diligent process that includes the input of stakeholders and pinpoints required funding. Working with the university and helping students understand the process has been rewarding.

“I provided the students with a list of people to interview who were heavily invested in the park,” Blackburn said.

Nathan Blackburn
Park manager Nathan Blackburn worked closely with the U of I class and the stakeholder comments they gathered to guide the Point Sublime day use project.

The list included native plant groups, surrounding landowners, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, ATV and equestrian groups.

“The students balanced the desires of stakeholders to come up with a good plan to achieve our goals,” Blackburn said.

Based on student interviews, Zajchowski had each student come up with a series of proposals for the Point Sublime site.

The outcome surprised Andrews, who had not considered the many facets involved in passing a proposal for something as simple as a wayside rest and viewpoint on public land.

“The class taught me to escape that black and white mindset, because sometimes there’s no perfect answer,” Andrews said.

Andrews, who hopes to one day manage state projects, similar to the McCroskey Point Sublime viewpoint project, said the lessons learned in Zajchowski’s course will pay dividends in the future of newly-minted project managers.

“Sometimes the best answer given what you have at your disposal is the one that is for the greatest good and the best for the money that’s available,” Andrews said.

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