The balancing act of conservation easements in the SNRA
Emmy Blechmann walked around a marshy area on a stretch on the Salmon River.
“Sometimes I just sit here and listen to the waterfall,” she said.
Ducks swam across calm, cascading pools of water formed by beaver dams and a pair of sandhill cranes stood observing.
Blechmann calls this Warm Creek, a refuge she envisioned with her late husband Fred who bought the property. It’s inside the boundaries of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
Blechmann lives north of Ketchum, but likes being in her house by Warm Creek, especially in the mornings and evenings.
“The fog lifts, or it sinks, depending on the weather. Then, the mountain peaks appear one by one,” she said. “It’s just beautiful.”
The Sawtooth National Recreation Area was created in 1972, in part to halt development springing up on the valley floor. There was hardly any local zoning at the time. Subdivisions were growing and more were planned.
The SNRA is mostly public land, but it also includes about 20,000 private acres.
The whole idea was to keep private land in private ownership. That would preserve the Western ranching tradition and keep properties on the county tax base, said Jim Snow, a former special counsel for real property with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“There’s something very compelling about driving up the valley and seeing the fences and the horses grazing and the cattle over here,” he said. “That’s what they were trying to retain.”
The government just needed a way to stop the kind of development it didn’t want.
“That’s when we started adopting the concept of scenic easements,” Snow said.
'A marriage without love and affection'
Scenic, or conservation, easements, are voluntary agreements between a property owner and a trust — the government or a non-profit — that limit how the owner can use the land in order to benefit the public — to protect the scenery, or the wildlife, or recreational access.
At the onset of the SNRA's formation, the Forest Service took over some private land through condemnation, which angered locals. But scenic easements were its central strategy for managing private land.
Snow helped write some of the first easements in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
“It's akin to a marriage without love and affection,” he said. “Because the government and the landowner are perpetual partners in ownership of this property.”
The SNRA’s formation came with a $19.8 million appropriation to buy into these deals with landowners.
Sharon Barnes, the private lands program manager for the SNRA, said the idea was sort of an experiment; the Forest Service hasn’t used conservation easements very much before this point.
“Nobody really knew how to draft these easements,” she said.
Barnes said land rights are like a bundle of sticks, and the government needed to decide which rights it was going to buy from landowners with the funds it had.
“Each one of those sticks represents something. One could be water rights, one could be the right to build roads, one could be the right to build houses,” she said.
In 1972, the Forest Service was mostly concerned about subdivisions and commercial development ruining the scenery, so those are the rights it bought most often.
Blechmann’s late husband sold a conservation easement to the Forest Service in 1986. She said he thought it was a good deal.
“The government would reimburse you for the loss of value because you gave up your development rights,” she said.
He kept commercial development rights around natural hot springs on the property, but he gave up the ability to build more than two houses.
Landowners are also subject to the SNRA's private land regulations and county zoning.
No crystal ball
By the area’s 25th anniversary, the Forest Service had purchased easements on about 86% of the private land in the SNRA.
But the agency was running out of money it could use to buy them.
“People would want to sell conservation easements to the United States, and they would say, ‘Maybe next year. We don't have any money,’” said Barnes.
So, some landowners threatened to subdivide their land.
“Commercial development again threatens the valley and adjacent foothills. And, again, there is an urgent need for protection,” said Bethine Church, Frank Church’s wife, at the 25th anniversary celebration in 1997.
That’s what prompted her and others to form the Sawtooth Society. It helped secure last-minute federal funds in the mid 1990s, with the support of Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), which stopped some big, planned construction projects.
But lack of money wasn’t the only thing challenging the easement system.
For one, the Forest Service quickly learned that subjective language in the early easements and land regulations, such as maintaining a "ranch-like character" or painting buildings in "natural" colors, left a lot up to interpretation.
Additionally, people writing easements try to speculate the problems that will arise in the future, but it doesn't always work out that way, said Barnes.
“I just don't think they could look into the crystal ball and see what was going to happen," she said.
In the SNRA, the original drafters wanted to stop developments of small cabins and trailers. So, the private property rules said no houses could be smaller than 750 square feet.
“But, they never said you can't have a house that's not bigger than 7,500 square feet,” Barnes said.
Yet the easements created a scarcity of land that could be developed, which drove property values up.
“Where we envisioned an easement that would keep it in this traditional ranch style, if you go up Route 75 now, you'll see a lot of mega-mansions,” Snow said. “I don't think a regular cattle farmer or rancher could afford to buy anything in the Sawtooth Valley today.”
Additionally, the second or third owners were often not the ones who had made the easement agreements with the Forest Service.
“They don't necessarily feel the same way as those original landowners that made the agreements,” Barnes said.
Still, they inherited the restrictions on the land. That’s resulted in a lot of lawsuits over the years.
At 80 years old, Blechmann worries about who would take over her property.
Her easement says there can only be two houses on the plot, which she has. The next owner couldn’t build another one.
“But they could remodel that and make it a bigger house,” she said.
She thinks that would change things. Blechmann won an award from the Forest Service a few years ago for being a model private landowner in the SNRA.
“This is a gem," she said of the SNRA. “This is a rarity. It is something that you need to work to preserve.”
'It's not all completely protected'
Concerns over private land in the SNRA came to a head last year.
Michael Boren, a co-founder of Clearwater Analytics, who owns a Sawtooth Valley ranch, asked Custer County for a conditional use permit for an airstrip on his property.
Boren said the airstrip was just an irrigated pasture, and the permit would allow emergency responders to land there.
Critics who formed an opposition group disapproved because they said it detracted from the values of the SNRA, but the county approved the permit.
Now, Boren is suing four people who spoke against the conditional use permit he was seeking for defamation. Through a representative, Boren declined to comment for this story.
Some people thought the Forest Service should’ve intervened more. It had paid more than $600,000 for a conservation easement on the property. But it was an early one, signed in 1974.
“Some of those older easements are very, very gray and [have] very little language on what they can and can't do,” said Kirk Flannigan, the Area Ranger for the SNRA. “And that's the box that, me as the Area Ranger, I live inside of that.”
In a letter to Custer County, the Forest Service said current use of the airstrip did not violate the easement.
Barnes hoped the discussions last summer were informative to the public.
“It's good for the public to realize it’s not all completely protected,” she said. “That would have been a national park, and we don't have that.”
In addition to private land in the valley, there are also state-owned land parcels — like where a cell tower is being proposed — and "designated communities," like the city of Stanley, with their own development codes.
Since 1972, the Forest Service has spent $44 million securing conservation easements on 104 pieces of land, totaling 17,000 acres.
The easements have gotten more restrictive over time. Jim Snow, the former government lawyer, said the fact that many of them were written decades ago poses some fragility. But he also said there’s a lot to be grateful for.
“We as a nation can take a great deal of pride that the people back then had the foresight to recognize that here's a resource that we got to save, and they did it,” he said. "Had we not in the seventies gone in and protected the Sawtooth Valley, who knows what it would look like today."
Shortly before retiring, Snow was standing on the overlook at Galena Summit, and he thought about how the valley looked almost as it did when he first visited.
To him, it showed the experiment that is the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, and the scenic easements that hold it together, worked.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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