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Proposed development on Bonner County timberland may get conservation easement instead

A few years ago, Bonner County’s largest contiguous tract of private forestland appeared headed for development.

Clagstone Meadows – 13,000 acres of timber, lakes and wetlands – had an approved development plan that included 1,100 homes, condos and RV lots, two 18-hole golf courses and an equestrian area. The plan would have created the equivalent of a new city between Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint, with easy access from U.S. Highway 95.

Now, however, owner Stimson Lumber is entertaining the idea of selling the development rights, valued at $12.6 million, and keeping the land in timber production in perpetuity. Proponents say the deal would help protect the region’s drinking water, retain local timber jobs and unusual forested wetlands, and allow for nonmotorized recreational access to the private property.

The deal hinges on securing financing, but the Clagstone easement has ranked high on a short list for federal funding.

“Nothing’s for sure, but we feel pretty optimistic,” said Alex Diekmann, the Trust for Public Land’s senior project manager in Bozeman, who has been working with Stimson on the conservation easement.

Ray Jones, Stimson’s vice president for resources, said a conservation easement is a better fit with the Portland-based company’s goals of long-term timberland ownership and management. However, company officials are continuing to work on finalizing development plans with Bonner County, in case financing for the conservation easement doesn’t materialize.

“Even though the project ranked well nationally, there’s no guarantees until you get to the finish line,” Jones said. “We like the easement idea, but we don’t dislike the development idea.”

North Idaho remains a desirable area for second homes, and though that market slowed during the recent national recession, it will eventually recover, Jones said.

Clagstone Meadows was named for Paul Clagstone, a Chicago entrepreneur who thought he could make a fortune by draining the area’s wetlands, clearing the timber and establishing a large cattle ranch there in the early 1900s. Instead, he lost the property through foreclosure.

The wetlands remain in a series of small lakes, peat bogs and marshes at the northern edge of the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, which provides drinking water for more than 600,000 of the region’s residents. Clagstone Meadows is recognized as one of Idaho’s higher-priority wetlands because of its contribution to the aquifer, rare plant communities and intact wildlife habitat.

“When you fly over it, you can see that Stimson has kept it in really good shape,” said Gregg Servheen, wildlife program coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “There are some outstanding wetlands values there.”

Clagstone Meadows ranked sixth on a national priority list for federal Forest Legacy Program funds, which are funneled through the states to purchase development rights on private forestland threatened by conversion to other uses. With the high ranking, it appears that the project will qualify for $5.5 million in federal money from next year’s budget, said the Trust for Public Land’s Diekmann.

If the federal funding comes through, Stimson is willing to donate 25 percent of the value of the conservation easement. The Trust for Public Lands still would have to raise nearly $4 million to complete the deal.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game would be a probable donor, Servheen said.

“We’re enthusiastic about the project,” he said. “We’d hope to work with the Trust for Public Lands on how we can close the gap and get the full funding.”

As part of the conservation easement, Stimson would allow access on the property for nonmotorized recreation, including hunting and fishing.

The area is home to whitetail deer, elk, black bears, wild turkeys and upland game birds, Servheen said.

“It’s a very healthy ecosystem,” said Karen Sjoquist, the Idaho Department of Lands Forest Legacy Program coordinator. “From a helicopter, you just see contiguous forest. It would be an asset to the public to keep that land forested.”