A real estate deal in Bonner County that would keep timberland in production, protect critical wildlife habitat and open the area to public access by hunters and others has come under attack from local lawmakers, county commissioners and even a group that purports to defend private property rights.
Stimson Lumber Co., which employs 200 workers in the timber industry there, got approval from Bonner County in 2006 to develop 13,000 acres of timber, lakes and wetlands into 1,100 homes, condos and an 18-hole golf course known as Clagstone Meadows. But wildlife and state officials in 2014 offered instead to buy the development rights to the lands using a federally funded Forest Legacy program that would keep the property in private hands and taxes flowing to the county.
The land would be paid for with federal dollars and private funds; the development rights would be held by the state of Idaho, giving it control.
As the talks continued with local and state officials, the county elected new commissioners. The deal moved forward and the line item for the pass-through from the U.S. Forest Service money was part of both the Idaho Department of Lands and Idaho Department of Fish and Game budgets.
Those budgets were pulled off the floor last week after a March 11 letter signed by two Bonner County commissioners opposing the sale was circulated.
But county commissioners had failed to make a notice of the action opposing the sale as required under the Idaho Open Meetings Act, said Cary Kelly, the Bonner County Commission chairman who did not sign the letter. “We have an open meetings problem,” he said.
The county commission has scheduled and noticed a discussion Tuesday, prompting many calls in favor of the sale since, Kelly said.
“I’m hoping on Tuesday we rescind the letter, to address the open meetings problem.” Kelly said in a telephone interview with the Idaho Statesman.
What commissioners do after that, he couldn’t say.
But Idaho Republican Rep. Heather Scott in her newsletter Friday raised fears about the loss of potential property taxes and effects on county services, buffer zones, roads or the county natural resource plan.
Since the deal would maintain the land and uses as is, supporters say, there would be no impacts.
But Scott opposes the $5 million Department of Lands pass-through in the budget, and the Fish and Game’s $2 million funded by the federal government and already approved.
“As most of you know I fully support the timber industry and private property rights,” Scott wrote in her newsletter. “What I do not support is using public dollars to reward a corporation for something they could do for free (set up a conservation easement on their own, allow public access and harvest timber).”
Stimson actually had foregone $3 million of the cost as its own donation to the easement, said Susan Drumheller of the Idaho Conservation League in Sandpoint, who worked with neighbors of the Clagstone property on the easement.
The Blanchard Republican is parroting a report released in February by the Idaho Freedom Foundation attacking the Forest Legacy Program, which provides the funds that keep the lands in timber production and prevent development to protect endangered species, wildlife habitat, water quality, public access and other values as the Boise Foothills Levy does in the Treasure Valley.
But the Freedom Foundation suggested the Legacy program is a part of a conspiracy.
Stimson CEO Andrew Miller, in a March 8 letter to the Freedom Foundation obtained by the Idaho Statesman, asked why the foundation decided to inject itself into the business of the company that employs more than 300 people in the state and owns 148,000 acres of timberland.
“Why are you urging the state government to block us from concluding free-market agreements we have reached on the use of our property on a willing seller/willing buyer basis?” Miller asked.
Miller said the Freedom Foundation did not contact the company before writing its report. Scott also did not talk to Stimson before she wrote her newsletter.
The county commissioners did not talk to Stimson before they opposed the deal, Kelly said.
“Stimson Lumber deserves the respect and support due to any private landowner for exercising our rights to choose how to best use our property,” Miller said.
In his reply to Miller, Freedom Foundation Executive Director Wayne Hoffman said federal taxpayers are paying the bill.
“We’d argue that when taxpayers are shelling out the cash, they too deserve input,” Hoffman said.