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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho House approves funding for North Idaho conservation easement

BOISE – The Idaho House voted 48-21 on Thursday to approve funding for a major conservation easement sought by Stimson Lumber Co. in Bonner County, despite strenuous arguments from North Idaho Rep. Heather Scott.

“My county just found out about this a week ago, they were not coordinated with,” Scott told the House.

The Clagstone Meadows conservation easement has been in the works for six years.

When Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, asked Scott about that - noting the project has been in the works for years, that previous Bonner County commissioners were consulted on it, and that the new commissioners were briefed about it when they took office - Scott replied, “Briefed and coordinated, two separate words there.”

Hours after the House vote, the Senate also voted in favor, 22-11, and sent the bill to the governor’s desk.

The 13,000-acre property was approved for development with 1,200 homes and two golf courses, but neighbors and North Idaho sportsmen opposed the plan. Working with them, Stimson agreed to give up its development rights to the property through a conservation easement, in favor of continuing to operate it as timber production land in perpetuity and allowing public access and hunting privileges.

But two of the three Bonner County commissioners signed a March 11 letter saying they did not support the project because they had not been consulted on the plans.

The commission this week voted unanimously to rescind the letter out of concerns that it violated the Open Meeting Law, and held a public hearing on the easement but took no official position on it.

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 Idaho Fish and Game budget, $2 million from a public lands trust, and a $3.1 million contribution from Stimson; all told, it’s a $12.6 million project.

Scott asked the House, “Will $7 million that we’re going to appropriate help any of your constituents in your districts, or will (it) line the pockets of a single corporation who will be able to sell it for just about as much?”

Under the easement, which stays with the land if it’s ever sold, the owner agrees not to develop the property; to continue to manage it for timber into perpetuity; and to guarantee non-motorized public access. The owner continues to pay property taxes just as it does now.

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said he was in favor of the bill based on the “personal property right” of the landowner. “He could have donated it. … He could’ve sold it to somebody else. But it’s his property and his right to do what he wants.”

Bill sponsor Rep. Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, pointed out that the Forest Legacy program was established in 1978.

Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, who like Scott is in his first term in the Idaho House, spoke against the funding, saying he wanted more time for local officials to review it. However, he said prior to the vote, “The more I learn about it, the less concerned I am – my comfort level is growing.”