A wood products company that wants to prohibit development on a large tract of its North Idaho timberland but keep it open for logging and outdoor recreation is looking for legislative support even as Bonner County elected leaders mull the merits of the plan.
Stimson Lumber Co. is seeking state approval of funding under the Idaho Forest Legacy Program for a conservation easement on more than 12,000 acres between Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will take up the funding measure Wednesday morning, said Sandpoint Sen. Shawn Keough, who co-chairs the committee.
“If we do not act this session, the project cannot be closed and the grants that have been awarded to the project will likely expire,” Keough said Tuesday. “Further delay will kill the project.”
The project is good for the county, for wildlife and sportsmen, and for the forest products industry, the lawmaker said. “It is the right thing to do and many, many people in our community support it.”
The proposal to convey a conservation easement to the state for the Clagstone Meadows property has been in the works since 2012 and has the backing of federal and state agencies as well as conservation groups. But two of the three Bonner County commissioners signed a March 11 letter saying they did not support it because they had not been consulted on the plans.
That letter, distributed to House members by Reps. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, and Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, jeopardized legislative approval of the funding as lawmakers approach the end of this year’s session. In a legislative newsletter this week, Scott called the conservation easement “a prime example of crony capitalism” and suggested Stimson could set it up entirely at its own expense.
On Tuesday morning, the county commissioners voted unanimously to void the March 11 letter to quash any concerns that Commissioners Glen Bailey and Todd Sudick, in deciding to write it, made the decision in violation of the state’s open meetings law.
Bailey also indicated he has warmed up to Stimson’s proposal. The land would become available for sportsmen to use, which appeals to him as a hunter, and it would help the company maintain its mill operations and employment in the area, he said. Plus, it would permanently protect some wetlands and other habitat from development, which Bailey said is desirable as well.
“I haven’t seen very many negatives at this point,” he said during a commissioners meeting attended by almost 90 Bonner County residents who were split on the project.
Sudick said he still couldn’t support it, for now, because the county was left out of the loop. “That’s huge,” Sudick said of the lack of coordination.
Commissioner Cary Kelly, the board chairman, said he hasn’t taken a stand on the proposal because he hasn’t had time to make an “accurate evaluation” of it.
Ray Jones, Stimson’s senior forester and vice president of resources, told the commissioners the conservation easement was his idea. He took it to the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation group that also worked with Stimson to set up a conservation easement protecting 6,846 acres of land in the McArthur Lake Wildlife Corridor, a link between the Selkirk and Cabinet mountains.
“The easement idea fits who we are as a company better than a development,” Jones said.
Bonner County previously approved a Stimson proposal to develop the Clagstone Meadows property with 1,200 homes and two golf courses. But after rural neighbors and sportsmen opposed that plan, Stimson switched to the conservation easement approach. The company would continue to harvest timber to supply local sawmills, but the private property would be opened to public access, including hunting privileges.
Jones also noted that Stimson went before the county’s planning commission in April 2013 to report they had begun working on the proposed conservation easement. That was shortly after Kelly’s term began in 2013 and two years before Sudick joined the board. Bailey was appointed in 2012 and elected in 2014.
Jones on Tuesday asked the commissioners to endorse the right of Stimson to pursue the easement as a private landowner. “If that does happen,” he said, “then we would like to engage with the county, which everybody has stated should have been more robust than it has been.”
David Groeschl, deputy director of the Idaho Department of Lands, told the county officials his agency always tries to work with local communities and elected leaders on projects such as this.
“There has never been an intention for this to fly under the radar,” Groeschl said.
He also said no state tax revenues would be used for the conservation easement. The money comes primarily from royalties on offshore drilling for oil and gas, and from taxes on the sale of ammunition. “There’s no income tax being used for it,” Groeschl said.
The public funding, he added, is compensation for Stimson agreeing to give up the development rights to its property, just as has been done for many non-industrial private landowners who have been granted conservation easements in North Idaho.
The $12.6 million Clagstone project includes $5.5 million in federal funds via 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.
Still, several county residents who spoke before commissioners Tuesday said they don’t like any public funds going to a private company.
“We’re needlessly enriching a company at taxpayer expense when they retain the right to harvest the lumber after it’s been put into an easement,” said Chris Allen, who lives east of Sandpoint.
“If the state wants to buy this land, they shouldn’t play hocus-pocus with the money,” Allen added.
Donna Capurso questioned the value of conservation easements. “They talk about conservation and protecting endangered species. Well folks, we’re the endangered species.”
Deb Trinen, a member of the county’s Republican central committee, said the Clagstone project has had ample public exposure and enjoys broad support.
“I just can’t imagine how our county officials were in the dark,” she said.
Trinen added, “The tree huggers and the hunters are on the same page, and we have all this conspiracy theory going on. I don’t get it.”
Laurie Reid, whose Hoodoo Valley property borders Clagstone Meadows, said in an interview Monday, “The landowners want it, the neighbors want it and the agencies want it.”
The Hoodoo Valley gets the water that flows out of Clagstone Meadows lakes and wetlands, Reid said. Downstream neighbors are worried about water availability and potential water quality impacts to Kelso Lake if the area is developed, she 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.
Reporter Becky Kramer contributed to this report.
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