There was a major fight over the Fish & Game budget in JFAC this morning after Rep. Jason Monks and Sens. Jim Guthrie and Dean Mortimer tried to derail a $2 million line item to purchase sportsman access to the Clagstone Meadows project in North Idaho, which is part of a conservation easement sought by Stimson Lumber, the owner of the property. Stimson is giving up development rights to the big chunk of timber land in the center of the Panhandle, 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 Fish & Game budget, $2 million from a public lands trust, and a $3.1 million contribution from Stimson.
The property had at one time been approved for development with 1,200 homes and two golf courses. Guthrie said, “We have two-thirds of Idaho already public owned, and it just seems contrary to me that we pay to have these easements and different things.” He said if people in the area think the land needs to be protected, the local Planning & Zoning officials could deny the development application.
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, JFAC co-chair, noted that the project is in her district. “It is a remarkable piece of land,” she said. “There was a proposal for 1,200 homes and two golf courses. It was very controversial. And a majority of the neighbors surrounding the proposal were opposed to it. A lot of work was done by the company and the county.” She said “there’s a public desire for fishing and hunting and hiking and the recreational values that that piece of land provides,” and Stimson recognized that and came up with the plan to sell its development rights. “It seems like this is, to me, a win-win situation, where the private property owner can still retain the land, can still harvest and grow trees, but at the same time the public has access for hunting. And this particular budget, these Pittman-Robertson funds are for access for hunters and sportsmen that they don’t currently have. And the sportsmen’s communities of that area are solidly behind this proposal. So I just wanted to offer you a front-row seat from the community, so that you have a little broader understanding of the issue.”
Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he’s very familiar with both the property and the company. “I’d say both are tremendous assets to our area up there.” The budget proposal “includes the money to do what the landowner wants to do. ... How I go back to the landowner in my district and say the Legislature doesn’t want you to do what you want to do with your land? This is a fantastic project that’s on the line here, and I would encourage your support.”
Mortimer tried an unusual maneuver – he moved to hold the Fish & Game budget to a later date, and not set it today, at least in part because one of the backers of removing the Clagstone funding, Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, is absent, as she’s presenting her Bible-in-schools bill in the Senate State Affairs Committee. The committee’s co-chairs and vice-chairs were taken aback.
Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, JFAC’s House vice-chair and a former state Fish & Game commissioner, said, “Whatever gamesmanship we are playing this morning shouldn’t be taken out on the backs of the sportsmen. And this project is to buy access to property that the average sportsman doesn’t have access to. … We’re not buying the property, we’re buying the access.”
Mortimer’s motion to delay the budget failed on a 7-10 vote. “We do have a quorum,” said JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. “And so with that in mind, we’ll go ahead and try to stay on schedule. You start putting bills back and pretty soon we’re going to bump up to the middle of March.”
Then, Monks’ motion to cut the funding for the Clagstone Meadows project failed, 3-14, with just Mortimer, Monks and Guthrie supporting it. The original motion for the Fish & Game budget, showing a 10.8 percent increase in total funds with no state general funds included, then passed on a 14-3 vote with just Mortimer, Monks and Guthrie dissenting.
As Fish & Game officials rose to leave the hearing room, Bell said to laughter, “I don’t remember a time ever being here that Fish & Game wasn’t a good rodeo.”