The Senate has voted 22-11 in favor of HB 646, the bill to tap federal grant funds through the Idaho Department of Lands and the Idaho Department of Fish & Game for the Clagstone Meadows conservation easement in North Idaho. After several senators spoke against the easement funding, expressing concerns about “locking up” lands and the like, Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “My gosh, people, let’s just talk sense here. It is just a piece of property that they want to continue to harvest timber on and allow the public access. … There are no spooky devils going to pop out of some closet on this issue. So this issue deserves a yes vote, and enough with the goofiness.”
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said a conservation easement is much like the conservation reserve program for farmland. “There has to be a continued source of sustainable timber,” she said, adding that the timber harvest on that property supports 52 jobs in the forest products industry in Bonner County. “This is a win-win project,” Keough said; she said it’s probably the fifth or sixth Forest Legacy easement project she’s supported in her district. The bill passed the House earlier today, and now goes to the governor’s desk. Here’s my full story from spokesman.com:
BOISE – Despite strenuous arguments against it from North Idaho Rep. Heather Scott, the Idaho House voted 48-21 on Thursday to approve funding for a major conservation easement sought by Stimson Lumber Co. in Bonner County.
“My county just found out about this a week ago, they were not coordinated with,” Scott told the House.
But the Clagstone Meadows conservation easement has been in the works for six years.
Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, asked Scott a question, saying he heard in an earlier meeting that the project has been in the works for years, that previous Bonner County commissioners were consulted on it, and that the new commissioners were briefed about it when they took office. “Briefed and coordinated, two separate words there,” Scott responded. “The Forest Legacy project calls for coordination, and my county commissioners were unaware of this until about a week and a half ago when they saw the bill come up on the floor.”
The bill in the Legislature, HB 646, includes $5 million in federal funds that are being passed through the state Department of Lands budget, and $2 million in federal funds from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game budget from a program for purchasing access rights for hunters.
The 13,000-acre property was approved for development with 1,200 homes and two golf courses, but neighbors and North Idaho sportsmen opposed the plan. Working with them, Stimson agreed to give up its development rights to the property through a conservation easement, in favor of continuing to operate it as timber production land in perpetuity and allowing public access and hunting privileges.
The project includes $5.5 million in federal funds for a forest legacy project through the Idaho Department of Lands, $2 million in federal hunter access funds from the Idaho Fish and Game budget, $2 million from a public lands trust, and a $3.1 million contribution from Stimson; all told, it’s a $12.6 million project.
Scott asked the House, “Will $7 million that we’re going to appropriate help any of your constituents in your districts, or will (it) line the pockets of a single corporation who will be able to sell it for just about as much?”
Under the easement, which runs with the land if it’s ever sold, the owner agrees not to develop the property; to continue to manage it for timber into perpetuity; and to guarantee non-motorized public access; the access rights for the easement would be held by the state of Idaho. The owner would continue to pay property taxes on the property just as it does now.
Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “I’m in favor of this bill. It seems like it’s a personal property right of this landowner to do what he wants. He could have donated it. … He could’ve sold it to somebody else. But it’s his property and his right to do what he wants.”
Bill sponsor Rep. Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, said, “This is not a new program. The Forest Legacy program was established in 1978.” He said the budget was approved by the state Land Board in August for submission to the Legislature.
The appropriations originally were included in the budgets for the state Lands and Fish and Game departments, but after Scott and Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, distributed a letter from two Bonner County commissioners saying they didn’t know about it and opposed it, the items were pulled out of those agency budgets and put into a separate bill. The Bonner commission this week voted 3-0 to rescind the letter out of concerns that it violated the Open Meeting Law, and the commission held a public hearing on the easement, took public comment, but took no official position on it.
Longtime Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “I know there’s opposition, but clearly, I believe, a majority, an overwhelming majority of neighbors and the community support that easement. The sportsmen support the access that they’ve not had, and those are definitely important things.”
Dixon, who like Scott is in his first term in the Idaho House, spoke against the funding, saying he wanted more time for local officials to review it. However, he said prior to the vote, “The more I learn about it, the less concerned I am – my comfort level is growing.”