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Camp Stidwell placed in conservation easement

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | February 25, 2023 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — A tree at Camp Stidwell has been around since before David Thompson first explored the region — or the United States was even a country.

"Who wouldn't want to preserve this?" Kiwanis Club secretary Dick Vail said of the tree — and the entire 160-acre site on the south end of Mirror Lake. "Nature worth preserving."

The club recently took steps to protect the area in perpetuity, signing a conservation easement with the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy.

"[The conservancy] will continue to maintain this pristine area for future generations and continue the vision of the founders — the ecosystem, wildlife habitat, environment, all preserved," Vail said. "Continuing the experience of nature, rustic camping, fun times and beautiful sunsets — all preserved. The dream is a reality and will continue to be enjoyed now and in the future."

Use of the camp has grown exponentially in recent years, with thousands of user days each year with a spot hard to come by in the deep of summer.

Also increasing was the number of people who wanted to buy the camp, Vail said. In recent years, the club received two serious offers, which were quickly thrown away. The club wasn't interested in selling — period, Vail said.

"All of a sudden, we received two service letters expressing a desire to purchase the 160-acre site," Vail said. "Both letters found their way into the wastebasket, as selling the property was not the intent. But might that ever change?"

The club worried that somewhere down the road, a future Kiwanis board might see it differently and sell the campground. They felt it was too important to leave to chance so, in 2019, the club began conversations with INLC's Chris DeForest on what a conservation easement was — and how it would work at Camp Stidwell.

"Can you imagine how many questions can arise - especially when you aren't familiar with the term?" Vail said. "Four years of back-and-forth discussions were underway."

That meant answering a host of "questions without answers or maybe answers that no one was sure of," Vail said.

Questions such as what is the value of the site or its exact boundaries? Questions like what is the timber worth or how is the future controlled? And questions like was the plan viable or whether rustic was the way of the future.

Slowly, club members and the conservancy group worked their way through those questions to draft an easement agreement. While the agreement was signed on Dec. 2, 2022, Vail said the club waited to announce it until it was officially adopted by all sides and had made its way through the court system.

"The easement maintains in perpetuity the legal agreement for the rustic campground, being open to the public, by reservation, with youth groups having first priority," Vail said. "The agreement protects the original intent while restricting subdivisions, commercial facilities, condos, apartments, trailer parks, etc."

INLC officials work with the club and will visit the property annually to ensure the agreement is being observed and both sides are satisfied with how things are going, Vail said.

The agreement doesn't change the site's ownership. Camp Stidwell is, and will continue to be, owned by the Sandpoint Kiwanis Club. A caretaker will still have a residence at the campground, but future development is restricted. What can and can't be done at the site is spelled out in the agreement and even if the club opts to sell the land down the road, any future owner would be bound by the conservation easement, Vail said.

"Is this a good move?" Vail said. "Well, think that every year we have seen an increase in rustic camping and usage by youth. This year we are over 8,000 user days. Now, future usage is preserved for youth for years to come."

Camp Stidwell got its start in 1947 when some Sandpoint residents had the vision of acquiring 159 acres of land to create a rustic campground. It would be open to the public by reservation, with youth getting the first choice, Vail said.

By 1964, many organizers of the Bonner County Youth Camp as it come to be called, had either moved, retired, or lost interest. They found it difficult to make decisions among a newly diversified group but still believed in the camp's premise

Enter the Kiwanis Club. Vail said camp organizers wanted their original goal of rustic campsites for area youth and the community to continue. Camp officials approached the Sandpoint Kiwanis Club and asked if they would take it over — with the condition its original purpose be kept.

The club agreed and the land was deeded over to the Kiwanis Club in 1964. Over the years, use of the camp grew and then grew some more, Vail said. From just a few hundred to more than 1,400 just seven years ago. The campground is booked solid during the summer months before the end of the year, with just a few dates open in May and September.

After vandalism became an increasing problem in the mid-1970s, the club added a caretaker to live on site. In January 1977, Bill Ouimet was on site, helping to care for the property. His presence put an end to the vandalism and Ouimet recently completed his 45th year of being the camp's superintendent.

In 1988, the club harvested timber to fund the construction of a new home for Ouimet. That same year, it acquired an additional acre of land — now the location of the camp's well — from the Silver Butte Mining Company.

In 2015, the club made numerous significant improvements, from new docks and bathrooms to new signs, barbecues and trails as well as a third camping area. However, as a club, Vail said the Kiwanians wanted to ensure the rustic campground remained just that — a wooded wilderness where both the community's youth and wildlife had a home.

"What a jewel Camp Stidwell has become," he added. "We recently have experienced one wedding each year. In each wedding, one of the spouses has camped at Camp Stidwell as a youngster."

Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church and numerous other youth groups enjoy camping at the site — just 15 miles from downtown Sandpoint.

"Camp Stidwell began 75 years ago and now is preserved for the future," Vail said. "The easement is a major historical step in preserving the environment for thousands of youngsters to enjoy in the future."

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(Photo courtesy DICK VAIL)

Area youth have fun at Camp Stidwell. Recently, Sandpoint Kiwanis entered into a conservation easement agreement with the Inland northwest Land Conservancy to preserve the site as a place for the community's youth as a rustic campground.

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(Photo courtesy DICK VAIL)

The red outline shows the boundaries of Camp Stidwell. Owned by the Sandpoint Kiwanis Club, the 160-acre site is now protected from through a conservation easement agreement which preserves its original intent as a rustic campground while restricting subdivisions, commercial facilities and other development.

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(Photo courtesy DICK VAIL)

Chris DeForest of the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy looks on as Kiwanis president Marcus Mabrey signs an easement agreement. The agreement the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy preserves the site as a place for the community's youth as a rustic campground while restricting development.

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(Photo courtesy DICK VAIL)

A tree around at the time of explorer David Thompson is among the habitat that Sandpoint Kiwanis Club members wanted to protect at its 160-acre Camp Stidwell. To do that, the club entered into a conservation easement agreement with the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy to protect the rustic campground and restrict development.

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