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Saving Upper Priest Lake
The Priest River is the main waterway on the west side of the Selkirk Mountains. It flows from Canada to fill Upper and Lower Priest Lakes. Between the two is a unique connection called the Thoroughfare. Tom Weitz and Kris Runberg Smith have been traveling the scenic channel for decades.
It's quiet and peaceful. It's a no wake zone, so if you motor, you go slowly and you can enjoy it. To me, it's like you're going back in time. I really get that feeling. Because when you get up here, the only development you really see are the few campsites or campgrounds, other than that, it's the way it was 150 years ago when the first prospectors and trappers and homesteaders came into the area.
Weitz and Runberg Smith worked together on a history of the area for the Priest Lake Museum. Runberg Smith was the primary author of the resulting book they called "Wild Place." She has deep roots in the area, her grandfather first came to northern Idaho in 1897 and operated logging camps around the lake. He also spent several years doing mining work next to Upper Priest Lake. In those early years of miners and loggers a few people did settle in the area.
When this area opened up for homesteading, end of the 19th Century, early 20th Century, we had three homesteaders up here, who managed to prove up, and got a claim to that land. And then over the 20th Century those are going to fall into other private hands. In 1961, one of the families who had homesteaded, the Geisingers, they sold it to a couple of doctors from Spokane who were going to subdivide it. I think by that time people are really aware that we can affect our environment and maybe we really need to think about it.
A lot of the people in the community were against the development of the upper lake. So they started a campaign to try to get the homesteads, which totaled about 400 acres, back into the public domain.
And there were a lot of struggles with that and, finally, Frank Church got involved, and he got a bill through Congress, where the Forest Service purchased that land from those original owners. And at the same time the Upper Priest Lake Scenic Area was formed.
Established in 1965 the Upper Priest Lake Scenic Area includes most of the Thoroughfare and about 4000 acres surrounding the upper lake. It's jointly managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Idaho Department of Lands. Weitz and Runberg Smith agree that this area really is a place that was worth preserving.
I know of no other place, certainly, in the state like that. So I think that that's what maybe appealed to people was, here was a place we could all go and capture that sense of what this must have looked like. It's just amazing. It's a place I've come my whole life, and it's really special.