Eagle Island park development stalled

The state planned to pay for improvements with millions in gravel sales. Dollars received so far: 0

cmsewell@idahostatesman.comJune 28, 2013 

The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation announced in 2006 an ambitious $24.4 million master plan for Eagle Island State Park, creating four new lakes and water trails, and amenities such as kayak campsites, an ice rink, amphitheater, RV camping area, a wetlands interpretive center and a dog park.

The state planned to pay for some of these improvements by selling gravel mined from the 546-acre recreation oasis in the middle of bustling Treasure Valley.

To get the ball rolling, the state signed a controversial five-year mineral lease in 2011 with Knife River for the first phase of gravel extraction. The state estimated it would receive about $540,000 annually - $2.7 million over five years - to pay for park amenities. To date, none of the improvements have been made because no gravel has been extracted.

NEW PLAN, NEW IDEA

When then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne announced in 2006 he wanted to spruce up state parks, lawmakers started looking for different ways to pay for it.

That year, the Legislature authorized the state parks department to mine and sell up to $15 million of gravel from Eagle Island State Park to pay for upgrades. Federal rules dictate that all of the gravel money made at Eagle Island has to stay at Eagle Island because the state received federal assistance to buy the park.

At the time, some lawmakers and citizens opposed gravel mining in the park, saying it could cause flooding, environmental damage or compromise the visitor experience.

Removing the gravel is key to the Eagle Island State Park development plan, not just for the revenue but also because the 30-foot-deep pits created from the mining would be turned into the park's new lakes and water trails. This is not the first local gravel-mining pits to be eyed for water recreation areas: Bernardine Quinn, Esther Simplot and Hyatt Hidden Lakes parks in Boise all have ponds created from gravel pits.

In April 2011, the state auctioned the first gravel contract. Knife River won, signed a five-year contract with the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation to pay $2.26 a ton for up to 1.2 million tons of gravel from the park.

TWO MONTHS? TWO YEARS

According to its website, North Dakota-based Knife River has facilities in 13 states and is the nation's fifth-largest sand and gravel producer.

Dave Turner, Knife River president for Boise operations, said in April 2011 that the gravel the company would remove from the park would be used for road construction and commercial parking lot projects in the Eagle area and for ready-mix concrete. He also said gravel extraction would begin within about 60 days.

That was two years ago.

"We have not received any revenue from gravel extraction because they have not yet begun to dig," said state parks Director Nancy Merrill.

According to the department, Knife River has said it has not landed a job in the area, so it has no need to start pulling gravel from Eagle Island.

Industry and community observers grumble that Knife River bid high on the contract and then sat on it to dominate the local gravel market. Turner could not be reached for comment.

The contract, which is in effect through April 2016, does not have a provision for nonuse or a timeline for when extraction must occur, so the state can't force Knife River to mine the gravel. According to state parks officials, Knife River has been paying its annual rent of $200. If Knife River does not start mining and the lease expires, the company forfeits its prepaid royalty of $70,000.

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell

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