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Arboretum celebrates 25 years of native plants,

by ROBIN CAMPBELL / Contributing Writer
| June 23, 2024 1:00 AM

Serene, accessible pathways, right in town, showcasing beds of plants native to the North Idaho ecosystem were just a dream in the late 1990s. Lois Wythe, the driving force behind the founding of the Kinnikinnick Native Plant Society, lead a committee of KNPS members whose task was to site and establish an urban sanctuary where visitors could experience and learn about North Idaho's diverse and beautiful native flora.

Inquiries were made to the University of Idaho about their property on North Boyer and to the Discovery Wildlife Center in Sagle. When neither of those sites worked out, the committee approached the City of Sandpoint. In December 1998, the City Council unanimously approved the use of 1.18 acres in Lakeview Park for a native plant arboretum, to be created and maintained by KNPS.

The in-town site had much to offer. It is easily accessible and near the History Museum, another public attraction. At that time, the Museum's historic cabin could be used for garden tool storage. The area was already populated with mature native conifer trees, which the city considered a nuisance when it came to mowing the grass under them.

Following the agreement with the city, KNPS members surveyed, assessed and inventoried the existing 167 native trees. Then, on Arbor Day, 1999, the North Idaho Native Plant Arboretum was officially dedicated. Summer 1999 was a busy one with work parties defining specialized planting areas. Signs identifying existing native trees were created and other species were added. The meditation garden and the dry rock wall were started.

Local landscape architect Tom Runa was hired in 2002 to help with overall design and plantings. He was instrumental in the development of the original Master Plan and an Arboretum guide and map.

In 2001, Sylvia Chatburn became the Arboretum manager, coordinating volunteers and work parties. She was active in that position until her retirement in 2017. At that time KNPS formed the Arboretum Leadership Team to take over Sylvia's responsibilities. In 2018, for the first time, KNPS created a part-time, paid summer position: Arboretum Volunteer Coordinator, responsible for weeding, clean up and general summer maintenance. This frees the Leadership Team to focus more on short- and long-range planning.

Today the North Idaho Native Plant Arboretum is frequently visited by both locals and out-of-towners. Like all living things, it is ever-changing offering a different experience with each season. Spring blooms, the perfume of wild roses, bright summer color, fall foliage and winter stillness present a kaleidoscope of sensory stimulation for those who wander through. The Arboretum is a destination for everyone from plant lovers and gardeners to dog walkers, to those seeking a few moments' escape from life's busyness.

An exceptional outdoor classroom, the Arboretum hosts a variety of KNPS events that foster appreciation of native plants and their ecosystems. KNPS coordinates with local schools to bring programs into the classroom and to bring kids to the Arboretum. Spring Tree Tours is a perfect example. KNPS invites third grade classes to the Arboretum to explore the distinct characteristics of native trees. During the tour, they also learn about their importance to the health of other local plant and animal life, including humans. This May, 250 third graders and several dozen volunteers will participate.

Other ongoing Arboretum events include workshops for adults, Tree Cookie Tuesdays in July for elementary school-age children, gardening and maintenance work parties and the annual native plant sale.

In early June, KNPS presents a native plant sale beside the Arboretum near the History Museum. The goal is three-fold: getting more native plants into local gardens by making them accessible, providing education about the importance of native plants, and as an awareness builder and fundraiser for KNPS. The society coordinates the sale with Cedar Mountain Perennials, a native plant nursery in Athol. 

During the Arboretum's 25th anniversary, KNPS is looking forward as well as back. Lakeview Park is scheduled for review this year as part of the city's planning process for all local parks. KNPS is currently developing its own future vision to present to the city for their consideration as they re-think Lakeview Park.

The KNPS board created an online survey which garnered a 43% response rate from members in order to get a sense of the Arboretum features members appreciate most and new features they would like to see. The results are currently being explored and used to guide Master Plan 2.0 which will be presented to the city. Currently, Sandpoint provides water and trash disposal, maintenance of paved paths and removal of large trees that fall due to storms or disease. All other development and maintenance in the Arboretum is performed by KNPS members and volunteers.

The North Idaho Native Plant Arboretum is free and open to the public. KNPS monthly programs featuring speakers on a variety of topics related to native plants happen the third Saturday of the month September through June, except for December. All announcements of meetings and events can be found on the KNPS website, www.nativeplantsociety.org and in local papers and online calendars.

    A volunteer works at the Kinnikinnick Native Plant Society's Native Plant Arboretum in Sandpoint in 2023.