Saving Cougar Bay

“Cathedral Thinking” in Practice

By Theresa Shaffer

For years, when I stood on our property high above Cougar Bay on Lake Coeur d’Alene to observe osprey and sometimes a bald eagle as they soared above the shimmering water, I didn’t think a lot about how the south end of the bay had become a nature preserve.

It’s a wild wetland next to the lake, open to the public to hike, canoe, kayak, maybe do some fishing, and even duck hunting in the autumn. Whenever I hike its meandering trail along the shore, I observe plenty of songbirds and waterfowl, turtles, deer, and the occasional wading moose.

When I retired from the University of Idaho in 2018, a coworker named Juli took me to lunch and told me about her own discovery of the Cougar Bay Nature Preserve. She and her husband had lived in Coeur d’Alene for five years and when she came upon the preserve, she was amazed by its hiking trails, natural setting, and particularly its closeness to town.

Our lunch was serendipitous. I told Juli that my partner Wes and I had just sorted through old boxes stuffed with newspaper clippings, maps, legal documents, and stories that described the grueling thirteen-year effort to spare Cougar Bay from development. His deceased wife had saved every piece of research and correspondence from this campaign. 

I related to Juli a few of the stories I had read. As we talked, it occurred to me that I should write the story behind Cougar Bay’s preservation. I asked if she would be likely to read such a book and she enthusiastically urged me to write it. After our lunch, I drove to the preserve and hiked to a bench that sits under an old cottonwood along the trail.

I listened to red-wing blackbirds sing their trilling songs and watched a cinnamon teal duck float by in the nearby marsh. I realized how fortunate it was to have a public nature preserve on Lake Coeur d’Alene, where more than ninety percent of the shoreline is privately owned.  

Excited about the prospect of telling the Cougar Bay story, I went home to share the idea with Wes. I had not been involved in the Cougar Bay effort and did not know what I was in for. He didn’t particularly want to revisit the thirteen-year battle he and many others had fought. The campaign started in 1992 and did not end until 2005, during which time his wife had passed away. However, as I discovered, heartfelt feelings inspire persistence.

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Osprey with fish. Jim Ekins, University of Idaho Extension.
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The entrance sign. Wes Hanson.
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Moose at the bay. Cara Anthony, Cougar Bay Lodge.
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View from Pointner Trail. BLM.
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"Soft Sunrise at Cougar Bay," courtesy Wes Hanson.
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John Pointner's "swamp buggy." Theresa Shaffer.
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The bulldozer he used to scrape the shoreline. Theresa Shaffer.
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A turtle denizen. Roberta Rich.
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I began to visit the preserve more often as I reflected on how to put such a complex and difficult story into book form. During these hikes, I met people carrying cameras with large lenses who were excited about taking wildlife photos. I saw smiling families whose children ran on the trails.

Dogs were out with their owners, eager to be amid nature. Waterfowl fed in the wetlands, and osprey screeched as they soared and hunted for fish for their chicks.  Cougar Bay was a place of constant renewal. My visits deepened my desire to tell its story.

I began delving through the box of random newspaper clippings and notes, arranging them chronologically. Then came many questions. Despite his reservations, Wes remained dedicated to my writing project and though hesitant at times, he answered my never-ending questions. While reviewing the voluminous material, I found two main themes. 

First, if you believe in something, you fight for it and don’t give up. Second, you must consider the long-term impact and ask yourself, what should the future look like? Futurists call this “cathedral thinking.” They mean that those who build something enduring will typically not live long enough to see the long-term results, but they know their work will leave a lasting legacy. The Cougar Bay Nature Preserve is such a legacy.

Cougar Bay lies roughly a mile south from downtown Coeur d’Alene. Adjacent to it, the busy Hagadone Marina at Blackwell Island differs sharply from the bay’s relative calm. Boats speed into Lake Coeur d’Alene from the marina and U.S. 95 traffic roars next to the bay as it heads up and down Mica Hill. 

A quiet contrast is the wildlife nature preserve at Cougar Bay’s south end. Visitors quickly become absorbed in the bay’s natural wonders as they watch turtles sunbathing on logs or listen to the many songbirds. Hikers could easily conclude that Cougar Bay was always destined to become a wetland wildlife sanctuary, but it was far from fated.

Cougar Bay’s bottomland used to be called the Meadows. A handful of homesteaders settled it in the late 1800s, farming hay and raising dairy cows. Then the Post Falls Dam was constructed in 1907, partially flooding the Meadows and submerging Cougar Bay’s basin.

In 1943, World War II induced the Washington Water Power Company to raise the water level at its Post Falls Dam because of the great need for additional power. This increased Lake Coeur d’Alene’s water level, which inundated the Meadows and expanded the size of Cougar Bay.

The bay sat undeveloped for decades because a sizable portion of its south end was privately owned. The main owner, John Pointner, wasn’t interested in development. The Healy family, one of the original homesteaders, had not developed its property either.

Then in 1992, the Healy heirs sold their 11.6 acres and 3,100 feet of shoreline to Hawaiian developer Mike McCormack. He wanted to build a subdivision. The local people weren’t having it. Over the years, they had grown attached to Cougar Bay’s wetland and natural setting.

The Friends of Cougar Bay quickly formed in 1992 to save the bay from being turned into a picturesque backdrop for a residential development. The group threw itself into a pitched battle to stop the subdivision. They gathered 2,500 signatures at the Kootenai County Fair, held public meetings, and organized a flotilla of twenty boats displaying a “SAVE COUGAR BAY” banner.

The protest got the attention of the community. The Friends contacted the late Scott Reed, an environmental lawyer, who started negotiating with The Nature Conservancy of Idaho (TNC) and the developer. In 1994, TNC bought the 11.6-acre shoreline with the caveat that The Friends as an organization would not oppose the developer’s nearby 118-acre subdivision proposal, dubbed The Ridge at Cougar Bay.

The Friends agreed to remain neutral and accepted the developer’s offer. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) soon bought the shoreline property from TNC.

At this time, a new activist group called Rural Kootenai Organization (RKO) formed to oppose the 118-acre subdivision. From 1995 to 2003, RKO challenged this proposal, both legally and at public hearings. RKO’s efforts kept Cougar Bay in the limelight. Locals and others were listening.

In 1998, TNC purchased 88.51-acres at the head of Cougar Bay from the Crown Pacific Lumber Company. This was TNC’s first permanent acquisition in Kootenai County and it became the Cougar Bay Nature Preserve, a win-win agreement for Crown Pacific and TNC.

Cougar Bay’s wetlands now belonged to TNC, while the lumber company kept its adjoining tree farm next to the new preserve above Cougar Bay. Larry Isenberg, Crown Pacific’s timber and land manager at the time, stated that preserving a quality environment and supporting forest product jobs were compatible.

One piece of privately owned Cougar Bay land and submerged marsh was still needed to complete the preservation: John C. Pointner’s 160 acres at the southwestern end of the bay. Locals considered him to be an eccentric and difficult man who thought of himself as Cougar Bay’s self-appointed savior.

In the 1980s, he and a friend had placed dynamite sticks throughout the bay, presumably to loosen sediment. John then used a hydraulic dredger to dig numerous canals which, in his mind, would catch seasonal sediment and prevent it from clogging the bay. The canals are still evident today. He also used a bulldozer to scrape one thousand feet off the shoreline’s edge.

This huge beast of a machine still sits on the shore of Cougar Bay. As you hike the trail, you will often see children climbing all over it. John also designed and built a “swamp buggy” to get around the bay. That contraption can be seen on the edge of a road between Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls.

By the early 1990s, regulations were enacted against dredging and excavating in Lake Coeur d’Alene, which had been contaminated by mining tailings from a century of gold and silver mining in the Silver Valley. The new rules forced John to stop his channeling and bulldozing.

For many years, he tried to sell his land to entities such as the University of Idaho and Gonzaga University for research purposes, but they declined. Finally, in 2003, when he was eighty-four, he struck an unusual deal with the BLM and Kootenai County. The sale contract was inventive, in that the two organizations were obliged to pay John five thousand dollars per month until he died. He agreed to forgive the debt after his death.

Part of the deal was that the property be named the John C. Pointner Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary Trail. Before he died, he bought a three-foot memorial stone that read, “Dead People and Live Animals Permitted.” It is placed above Cougar Bay at an undisclosed location to keep it undisturbed. When John Pointner died on May 30, 2005, ownership of his 160 acres went to the BLM and Kootenai County to expand and complete the Cougar Bay Nature Preserve.

The preserve remained unaltered until 2014, when the BLM contracted with a U.S. Forest Service fire hotshot crew to build a hiking trail. That summer a viewing platform was built by the Post Falls Boy Scout Troop 209, led by Eagle Scout Josh Kirby. The platform overlooks the bay and the city of Coeur d’Alene, giving weary hikers a stunning view. 

Today, Cougar Bay Nature Preserve’s well-maintained 2.2-mile hiking trail wanders through a wildlife sanctuary where low-impact recreation is encouraged. Birdwatching and wildlife sightings abound, and visitors can paddle around the marshlands in canoes or kayaks in the no-wake zone. The Idaho Wildlife Viewing Guide calls the preserve one of the state’s best wildlife-viewing sites.

The preserve was jointly managed by TNC and BLM until 2021, when the BLM received $1.6 million from the U.S. Department of the Interior Land and Water Management Fund State Grants program and purchased the preserve outright, in keeping with the federal government’s current America the Beautiful initiative.

Public lands such as the Cougar Bay Nature Preserve are undeniably good for communities. My book, Cougar Bay Nature Preserve: Saving Coeur d’Alene’s Natural Gem, which was published in September 2023, is an account of an effort that involved remarkable timing, persistence, and single-minded activism.

Endurance and resolve prevailed. The Cougar Bay Nature Preserve provides a place where people and nature intersect, and both are free to thrive. Like Coeur d’Alene’s Tubbs Hill, it is a local treasure. 

Cougar Bay Nature Preserve: Saving Coeur d’Alene’s Natural Gem (The History Press, 2023) is available locally wherever books are sold and at arcadiapublishing.com.

 

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Theresa Shaffer

About Theresa Shaffer

Theresa Shaffer is a longtime supporter of land conservancy. She and life partner Wes Hanson live on a 160-acre original homestead in Coeur d’Alene protected from development through a conservation easement. A mother and grandmother, Theresa is a retired educator and administrator from the University of Idaho, where she received a Master’s degree.

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