By Cameron Rasmusson
Schweitzer Mountain Resort is eyeing a partnership with Kaniksu Land Trust to pursue a conservation easement for a portion of its property.
The proposal, brought before the Bonner County Board of Commissioners for an overview on Tuesday, would protect 5,800 acres of land for habitat, timber, recreation and economic development opportunities, according to Eric Grace of Kaniksu Land Trust. With support from the commissioners secured, Schweitzer and Kaniksu Land Trust plan to move forward on a request for funding through the federal Forest Legacy Program, which requires that applications be submitted by May 30.
Given the opposition to conservation easements among some conservative circles, the commissioners’ support for the project raised a few eyebrows. At the meeting, Commissioner Dan McDonald said that while he has opposed conservation easements in the past due to the limited amounts of local land available for development, the Schweitzer proposal was the right way to do it.
“This is Schweitzer’s private property, and the money is coming from a pre-established program that could go here, or it could go somewhere else,” McDonald said.
“The scuttlebutt I hear from my friends is, ‘We want to get our lands back,’” McDonald added later in the meeting. “Well, this isn’t our land. This is Schweitzer’s land.”
They also pointed out that ultimately, the commissioners have limited authority over the project. Schweitzer has a right to do what it wants with its land, and federal authorities have final approval over project funding.
“Commissioners don’t have the option of saying, ‘No, you’re not doing this,’” Commissioner Jeff Connolly said.
If Schweitzer Mountain Resort’s application is accepted, development on the project will take the next two and a half to three years. The revenue yielded from selling development rights to the property will help Schweitzer enhance its skiing services through infrastructure investment. Likewise, the land tied up in the conservation easement won’t hurt the quality of Schweitzer existing services, Grace said.
The proposal also includes land within the city of Sandpoint’s watershed, a valuable resource for the town’s water supply.
The Board of Commissioners meeting this week drew healthy attendance, leaving standing room only in the small third-floor conference room. Some attendees were suspicious of the federal funding sources. Others were concerned about the possible effect of run-off from the project, but Commissioner Glen Bailey assured attendees any project would require a run-off system approved by Bonner County Planning and Zoning. Still others lauded the project’s value and commended the commissioners for supporting it.
“We oftentimes don’t see eye to eye [with the Board of Commissioners] on the work we do, but this is a great example of when land conservation dovetails with economic development,” Grace said.
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