The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has set a budget for the state Department of Lands for next year, after a small group led by Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, tried unsuccessfully to slice out a Forest Legacy Project in North Idaho that will preserve the largest contiguous piece of private forest land in the Panhandle as privately owned, operating timber land, through a conservation easement that also will grant public access rights for hunting, fishing, hiking and more.
The Lands Department budget includes $5 million in federal funds for the project, as part of an overall $12.6 million conservation easement project that’s all either federally or privately funded. Stimson Lumber Co., the land owner, is selling its development rights for the property – once approved for 1,200 homes and two golf courses – to instead continue operating it as timber land in perpetuity; it’s contributing 25 percent, or $3.125 million, toward the project.
“I agree that we should be protecting our forest lands,” Nuxoll said. “I also know the Forest Legacy program is promoted by the environmental groups, which is great in some ways, but keeping the land in perpetuity is limiting the freedom of choice for our children and grandchildren and our free-market economy. … It’s federal money, but it’s still our money. We’re using that money to pay a lumber company to preserve land on which they own and use.”
Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, agreed with Nuxoll. “What we’re talking about is access and development rights. You know, I guess I always felt like if you want to allow somebody on your land you can do it, and if you don’t, you put up the orange signs. I guess I find it interesting that money somehow changes your philosophy, and I’m troubled by that. I think it’s a dangerous precedent to get into, paying people to allow access when that should be a freedom of choice.”
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who represents the district where the project is located, said, “The Forest Legacy Project of the Clagstone Meadows is a willing buyer, willing seller arrangement. It’s a private property issue, in my view.”
State Forester David Groeschl, deputy director of the state Department of Lands, told JFAC, “This program is highly supported by sportsmen, the folks in the county that live there. Those lands are maintained by the owner of that property, they stay in private ownership, they do not become public lands. The purpose of the program is to keep working forests working, and to manage those lands long-term.”
Nuxoll’s move to remove the Clagstone Meadows project from the Lands Department budget failed on a 4-16 vote, with just Nuxoll, Guthrie, Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, and Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, supporting it. Then, the budget motion from Rep. Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, and Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, which included the project, passed on a 16-4 vote. Overall, the budget set for the state Lands Department reflects a decrease of 2.3 percent in state general funds from this year’s level, but an increase in overall funds of 17.5 percent. The budget bill still needs approval from the House and Senate and the governor’s signature to pass, but budget bills rarely change after they’re set by the joint committee, and the budget largely matches Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation.