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Idaho Conservation advocates are celebrating conservation easement on Cougar Island

Conservation supporters worried that private ownership and development of the lots would compromise conservation efforts.

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho conservation advocates had major concerns about the future of this island on Payette Lake throughout 2022. Cougar Island is owned by the state, but Idaho was looking to sell the land to maximize financial return, per state regulations.

The state constitution requires the Land Board to "maximize financial return over the long term," mainly to benefit public schools. Scott Phillips with the Idaho Department of Land explained the thought process of the Idaho Land Board earlier this year.

“In this case with one lessee on the property, it really is an underperforming asset given the value of that property. So the land board made the decision in a very public way in 2018 and then again re-discussing that in January and February of 2021 through the Endowment Land Strategy to sell the parcel, bring it to auction and do something different. The proceeds to earn more money for our schoolchildren," he said.

Conservation supporters worried that private ownership and development of the lots would compromise conservation efforts.

In the fall everything was up in the air, the island went to a public auction where anyone could bid on the land.

Another interesting aspect: a lease holder of the lot with a cabin was at the auction to try and win the auction, so his family could own the land instead of leasing. Well, that one lot sold for a little more than $2 million.

Johnathan Oppenheimer with the Idaho Conservation League says that bid began a winning process for conservation advocates.

“One of our partners within United Payette, which is kind of an umbrella organization of a number of community interests and stakeholders, a group called Payette Land Trust worked with that successful bidder and the current homeowner to establish a conservation easement on his property," Oppenheimer said. "So basically, it says there won't be any further development on his property, they won't be used to facilitate additional development of Cougar Island if and when the state does put some of those parcels back on the market.”

Oppenheimer explains, Payette Land Trust was able to contribute to the family’s land purchase in exchange for a conservation agreement.

“By having Payette Land Trust step in with some additional dollars, it helped him to actually close on his parcel," Oppenheimer said. "And so some dollars were contributed to that that purchaser. And then that helped him ensure that he had the financing available to actually acquire that property. So it's really it was a win-win both for the homeowner as well as for pay at land trust and conservation interests.”

But, that is only one lot on Cougar Island, what about the rest?

Remember the auction? Well, only that one piece of land sold so it’s possible the state tries again in the future.

“I think the big question is going to be, you know, what's going to happen next year, what's going to happen a couple of years down the line? You know, we continue to see a lot of development pressure in McCall and across the state," Oppenheimer said. "And so the volatility in the real estate market and if we see, you know, prices start to skyrocket again, there's a chance that that the Department of Lands could put some of Cougar Island on the market for a potential sale. And, you know, ultimately from Conservation League's perspective, as well as many, if not all of the stakeholders in Valley County and McCall, we want to see that open space preserve.”

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