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Payette Land Trust reaches conservation easement agreement for part of Idaho’s Cougar Island

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Payette Lake is a popular attraction in the resort community of McCall. (Courtesy of Idaho Department of Lands)

Easement will limit development and commercial use of the island on Payette Lake

Officials with the Payette Land Trust and the new owner of a parcel of land on an island situated on Payette Lake have agreed on a conservation easement that will limit future development and commercial use on Cougar Island.

The conservation easement, which Payette Land Trust purchased from the land owner, applies to a privately owned 2.5-acre parcel of land located on the 14-acre island. The state of Idaho owned and managed Cougar Island as part of its portfolio of state endowment lands. But the Idaho Board of Land Commissioners voted in June to auction the island off the highest bidder, either as an entire island or parcel by parcel.

When the Idaho Department of Lands auctioned off the island on Sept. 14, only one of the five parcels sold or even attracted a bidder. State records show that Bellevue attorney Jim Laski, who previously leased the 2.5 acre lot on Cougar Island from the state, was the only active bidder and bought the 2.5 acre property for $2,025,000, the Idaho Capital Sun previously reported.

What does a conservation easement do?

Payette Land Trust executive director Craig Utter worked with Laski to reach an agreement on the conservation easement, Utter said. The easement places a so-called development envelope around the existing home on the property. Within that envelope, the landowner may repair and maintain the property or build up to two out buildings. But outside of the envelope, the easement requires that the rest of the land remain undeveloped, Utter said. The easement also contains noncommercial clauses. That means the house cannot be turned into a lodge or restaurant, the property can’t be used for third party rental sites like Airbnb or VRBO and someone can’t come in and build yurts or a “glamping” operation on the hillside, Utter said.

“Our goal is to conserve Cougar Island as it is now, which is an island that currently has one house, and we don’t want to see it change,” he said in a telephone interview. “Our group wants to come in and find a balance between conservation and development, which usually means we find a piece of property and try to keep it the way that it is.”

Payette Land Trust officials announced the easement agreement in a Dec. 9 press release.

Payette Land Trust is a nonprofit organization that is active in Adams, Idaho, Valley and Washington counties. The organization works to conserve land by acquiring conservation easements or directly purchasing property. Payette Land Trust owns two properties and holds 13 conservation easements on private property.

The conservation easement for Cougar Island will be permanently attached to the property’s deed, Utter said. That means even if Laski sells the property to someone else, the development and commercial limitations will still apply outside of the development envelope. The conservation easement does not apply to remaining unsold portions of Cougar Island, which the state still owns.

Utter said Payette Land Trust will continue to watch the remaining parcels of Cougar Island, but he declined to speculate about what will happen to the rest of the island in the future because three of the Idaho Board of Land Commissioner’s five members will be new in 2023.

Cougar Island is a wooded and hilly island located near the town of McCall and Brundage Mountain resort. The island doesn’t feature any roads, so the only way to get to it is by boat or helicopter. The four other parcels of land on the island are not developed or leased and range in size from 1.9 acres to 3.5 acres.

Why did the state of Idaho auction off an island of public land?

State officials have been discussing selling Cougar Island since at least as far back as 2010, when the land board and Idaho Department of Lands began the process of unifying 523 cottage sites on state endowment land. That led to the creation of five parcels of land on Cougar Island and a process to allow interested state endowment land leaseholders to participate in voluntary auctions for ownership.

During a June 21 land board meeting, Idaho Department of Lands real estate bureau chief Josh Purkiss described Cougar Island as an underperforming asset and recommended selling it. Purkiss told the land board that four of the five parcels of land were unleashed and the island only generated $32,400 in revenue last year.

During that meeting, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said the land board has a duty in the Idaho Constitution to use the lands to generate the largest long term financial return for public schools and seven other state beneficiaries. When Idaho became a state, the federal government granted Idaho about 3.6 million acres of land under the condition the land be put into a trust and managed for the benefit of public schools and other beneficiaries. The state has sold some of that original allotment of land and now manages about 2.5 million acres of state endowment lands.

”I am interested in the market,” Wasden said. “That is actually what our decision making basis is, and that is our objective is to obtain the maximum long-term financial return.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.