Coolin development threatens rare peat bog at Priest Lake

By Jennifer Ekstrom
Reader Contributor

We have some pretty amazing wild spaces up here in North Idaho. Massive lakes. Sparkling rivers. Diverse landscapes ranging from rainforests to rocky crags. And peat bogs. Yes, peat bogs. I didn’t know how cool they were, or that we had them in North Idaho, until just a few weeks ago.

Peat bogs are archives, containing ancient plant spores, pollen and fossils which can provide great insights into our region’s distant past. These bogs also act as immense holders of carbon dioxide, and worldwide they are said to store an estimated 15-20% of our planet’s carbon reserves. They are rare, and very sensitive to small changes in water chemistry and hydrology, so are susceptible to problems when development or other alterations happen nearby or directly in them.

North Idaho is home to several of these bogs, and a couple of the most important are found along the shores of Priest Lake. One commonly referred to as the Coolin-Chase Lake wetland complex is designated by Idaho Fish and Game as “Class 1” — an area of highest conservation priority. According to a study prepared for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests: “These small, overlooked sites support the richest rare plant diversity of any habitat in Idaho.” 

The one near Coolin is unfortunately at the center of great controversy due to a long-fought development proposal. Developer Clifford Mort and his corporation, Tricore Investments, took ownership in 2021 after a five-year legal battle with basketball legend John Stockton and local resident Todd Brinkmeyer, who were trying to preserve the wetland. The developer won in court, and proceeded to divide the Coolin bog into 35 lots, circumventing the required public process and subdivision standards in Bonner County. They rubber stamped all of the lots without an approved development plan, community input or any design standards, like requiring sewer hook-ups. 

The Coolin wetlands. Photo by Dr. Robert Bond.

Mort then tried to acquire sewer hook-ups for the individual lots, delivering applications and payment for hook-ups in one batch to the Coolin Sewer District staff, who had clearly explained they needed a development plan before the application process. Due to this abnormal request and uncertainty around capacity, the district implemented a moratorium for any new hookups. This decision was supported by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, which sent a letter to the district stating, in part, that these wetlands “play a crucial role in protecting/improving water quality, water retention, erosion control, soil and nutrient trapping, supporting a food web for many species of wildlife, and are valuable in providing movement corridors for a variety of wildlife species. Additionally, wetlands help extend stream flow during droughts and aid in preventing damaging floods.”

Although Mort was reportedly not pleased by being denied the sewer hook-ups, he was not deterred.

Despite having no plan for his development’s sewage waste, one newly deeded owner recently secured a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to fill in a portion of his property with dirt to create a road and building pad for a 4,080 square foot shop. The shop may be intended as a staging area for the development of other parcels.

The permit this property owner secured is called a “general permit,” which is a permit that allows filling a wetland of less than one half acre total. It does not require public notice and is very easy to acquire. Had the Army Corps done their job, they would have recognized the intent to fill and develop all 35 parcels and would have required a more robust, public permitting process.

Since the Army Corps followed Bonner County’s lead and pulled out their proverbial rubber stamp, the Idaho Conservation League, with support from Selkirk Conservation Alliance and Lakes Commission, are asking the Corps to revoke this permit. Not only does the Army Corps have authority and responsibility to revoke this ill-conceived permit, they also have authority to exclude certain areas or classes of waters — like Class 1 wetlands — from the general permit process entirely. We are asking them to do exactly that.

We must protect these amazing peat bogs and the history they hold, the resilience and habitat they offer, and the timeless beauty they provide. It would be foolish to let it all be taken away on our watch. 

There will soon be opportunities for the community to weigh in on this topic of great consequence, from which we have been effectively excluded thus far. Please stay tuned for these opportunities as the saga evolves. 

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Jennifer Ekstrom is the North Idaho Lakes Conservation Associate for Idaho Conservation League.

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