Board endorses conservation easement on Schweitzer

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Schweitzer Mountain Resort is seeking a conservation easement to preserve forested lands within the resort and help pay for capital improvements on the mountain. (Courtesy photo)

SANDPOINT — Bonner County commissioners are putting their support behind a conservation easement aimed at preserving Schweitzer Mountain Resort’s slopes while funding capital improvements on the mountain.

The resort’s Seattle-based owners are seeking the easement through the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy program, which identifies and protects valuable forest lands. If the 5,800 acres on Schweitzer Mountain are accepted into the program, Schweitzer would sell off its right to develop the property.

“Our hope is that we can get $4-5 million,” said Rod Engel, Schweitzer’s chief financial officer and director of real estate.

That would then help fund the development of utility infrastructure for a 136-lot housing development on the mountain’s south ridge so those parcels can be brought to market. It could also be put toward the replacement of the Snow Ghost chairlift.

Snow Ghost, also known as Chair 6, is popular with skiers and snowboarders, although it has an 13-minute trip time, which makes it the most time-consuming chairlift ascent on the mountain.

Engel told commissioners on May 16 that the lift replacement project is expected to cost between $6-8 million, depending on the configuration that’s ultimately selected.

“We estimate that’s going to generate about 10,000 additional visits to the resort and local area. It creates three to four year-round jobs and about six to seven additional seasonal jobs.

Schweitzer has an annual payroll of $5.8 million. The resort employs 89 people year round and up to 600 during its winter and summer operations.

The resort’s impact to the economy roughly doubles once those payroll dollars start coursing through the local economy.

“It represents about $14-15 million impact on the local community,” Engel said.

Engel said a recent capital improvement, construction of the $6 million Sky House lodge on the summit, stimulated $1.5 million in lot sales and is expected to result in the development 11 units on the mountain this summer.

It may take up to three years to finalize the easement, although Engel said the resort will likely start its projects sooner if the funding is secured. The property covered by the easement would be owned by the Idaho Department of Lands if its accepted into the Forest Legacy program.

The majority of the property covered by the easement consists of the resort’s downhill runs, land that’s too steep to be developed. Excluded from the easement is ground on the mountain’s summit and around the Outback Inn.

Commissioners unanimously voted to support the conservation easement.

Commissioner Dan McDonald said such easements give him pause in light of the fact that all but 14 percent of lands within Bonner County are owned by the federal government or the state.

However, the resort’s developable ground is not subject to the easement, which means additional property tax revenue that can ease landowners’ tax burden, he said.

“It doesn’t take it off the tax rolls,” Commissioner Jeff Connolly added.

McDonald said he would “staunchly oppose” an easement where there are ample developable lands, such as the Selle Valley. However, the property subject to the Schweitzer is easement is too rugged to be developed.

“It’s on step-sloped land that’s not really developable. So, to me, this is a perfect place for a conservation easement,” McDonald said.

Commission Chairman Glen Bailey said he didn’t see any deal breakers in the concept laid out by Schweitzer’s officials.

“I have heard nothing that would persuade me to disagree with this conservation easement,” he said.

Kaniksu Land Trust is working with Schweitzer to shepherd the proposal through the Legacy Forest program and help draft the easement if the ground is accepted into the program. Eric Grace, executive director of the land trust, expects to learn in about six months if it will be accepted.

“This is a great example of how the work of land conservation dovetails very nicely with economic development interests and quality-of-life interests here in Bonner County,” Grace said.

Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at kkinnaird@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.

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