This morning, a conservation easement will be signed to forever preserve 1,643 acres of private forest ground in the Cabinet Mountain foothills southeast of Bonners Ferry.
The land supported three generations of a local family and untold generations of creatures ranging from grizzlies to salamanders. Amid the Panhandle property boom, the acreage also has captured the attention of real estate developers.
“Most of this property is lowland foothills that could very easily be developed into straight-up subdivisions or gated golf courses,” said Ed Warner, Forest Legacy coordinator with the Idaho Department of Lands.
Under terms of the easement, the Merrifield family will continue to harvest timber and grow ornamental trees at their Clifty View Nursery on the property, as they have for decades. But all future development rights have been surrendered to the state of Idaho.
The property was ranked as the seventh-highest priority in the nation for protection this year under the Forest Legacy Program, which is funded through federal tax dollars and administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Since its inception in 1992, the program has protected about 1.5 million acres of environmentally sensitive forest, including 54,000 acres along Idaho’s St. Joe River.
Although the Forest Legacy program is paying $2.9 million for the Merrifield property conservation easement, the actual value could be twice as high, said Ryan Lutey with the Vital Ground Foundation of Missoula. Precise figures were not available Wednesday, but Lutey said the Merrifield family was donating a quarter of the easement’s value to the state. The value also was based on a 2005 assessment, when land prices in Boundary County were much lower than today’s market.
“It’s a bargain sale,” Lutey said. “The state is getting a great deal.”
The Vital Ground Foundation helped facilitate the project and will check on the property annually to make sure terms of the easement are met. The foundation was interested in the land’s importance as grizzly habitat, Lutey said.
A tiny population of the bears still roams the Cabinet Mountains, but prime habitat is quickly being lost to second homes and subdivisions, Lutey said. The relatively low-lying forests and fields of the Merrifield property are especially important for the bears in spring, when they emerge from dens high in the mountains and “make a beeline for those lower elevation areas where there’s lots of forage,” Lutey said.
Montana has been relocating grizzlies in recent years from relatively healthier population areas along the northern Continental Divide to the Montana portions of the Cabinet Range. Last year, one of the transferred bears denned within two miles of the Merrifield property, Lutey said.
Along with grizzlies, the land is considered habitat for lynx, wolves, deer, elk, moose, fisher, wolverine, cougar, fox and various species of birds. But it wasn’t just protecting wildlife that prompted Idaho to throw its support behind the easement, said Ed Warner with the Department of Lands.
The Clifty View Nursery is a large employer in the region, Warner said. The land’s managed forests have also provided a steady stream of timber to sawmills.
Lon Merrifield declined to comment on the deal Wednesday, saying he would rather wait until the ink has dried on the contract. But a statement issued by the family expressed excitement: “When our family and the nursery first explored the Forest Legacy program about four years ago, it seemed like a natural fit for our long-term goals.”