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Payette Land Trust has picked an extra long day for an extra big celebration of Idaho conservation

The Payette Land Trusts hosts its annual Conservation Day on Saturday, June 17 at the Activity Barn in McCall.
Payette Land Trust
The Payette Land Trusts hosts its annual Conservation Day on Saturday, June 17 at the Activity Barn in McCall.

When Craig Utter talks about the decades-long mission and the day-to-day hefty lifting of the Payette Land Trust, he often uses the word “forever.” Indeed, when the Trust helps craft a historic conservation easement agreement for a portion of Cougar Island, the end product would have an ever-lasting impact.

“A lot of people ask, ‘What does Payette Land Trust get out of an agreement with a private landowner?' And the first thing I tell everybody is ‘A lifetime job," said Utter, executive director of the Trust. "We’re going to carry forward that private landowner’s conservation ethic into the future. And we do that through an agreement in perpetuity. So, we're here forever.”

As the Payette Land Trust approaches its annual Conservation Day, Utter spoke with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about that mission and their upcoming event.

Read the transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. As 2022 was coming to a close, we learned of a historic conservation easement agreement for part of Cougar Island on Payette Lake right across from McCall. Well, this time of year, with so many visitors to McCall and Payette Lake, Cougar Island is more top of mind. The bottom line, Cougar Island was at risk of being commercially developed, but the Payette Land Trust purchased and helped craft a conservation agreement that will limit commercial encroachment on that high profile island. Private land conservation is something that, quite frankly, not a lot of people have known about historically. But the Payette Land Trust is changing that. So, let's spend some time and say good morning to Craig Utter, executive director of the Payette Land Trust. Craig, good morning.

CRAIG UTTER: Good morning, George. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about private land conservation in Idaho.

PRENTICE: I'd like to just for a couple of minutes revisit Cougar Island, not so much of what happened, but the bigger picture, because I think that the agreement that you helped craft became much bigger than the island itself. Could you talk about the historic nature of that and how we can plug that into a number of other opportunities?

UTTER: So to give a little background, Cougar Island is part of the Endowment Trust lands that are owned by the state of Idaho. And you may hear from time to time talk out endowment lands or the  Land Board and the constitutional nature of holding those properties here in Idaho, specifically to Cougar Island. The Idaho Department of Lands decided that it was an opportunity to put that land up for auction, to sell for privatization. There were five lots that had been designated on Cougar Island, and there was one lot that had an existing home that was leasing that ground from the state of Idaho. And so with the island going up for auction. Payette Land Trust, with the help of a lot of other organizations working through United. Payette, which is a group of us up here that are concerned with the endowment lands around Payette Lake started working for the course of a year. Once we heard that Cougar Island would be up for auction to try and figure out a way to conserve it as it is. And that also involved working with the owner of the home that's on Cougar Island. And again, the Payette Land Trust really does focus on private land conservation. So once the auction was held and the owner of the home actually purchased their property, then it moved out of the public trust and into private ownership. And that's when we worked with the homeowner to craft a conservation easement specific to their property and to the island to make sure that it was in the best interest of not just people that float by the island, but of water quality and of the homeowner that lives on. Cougar has that home on Cougar Island. So we worked with them to create a non-development conservation easement that also prevented commercial development.No Airbnb, no Vrbo or that house ever becoming a lodge or something like that. It would remain as it is now. That homeowner had two plus acres. There's a lot around Payette Lake, and so we restricted the development that exists on the footprint as we see it now in perpetuity. So there won't be any more development on that specific lot. Now, the rest of the island is still owned by the state, but I think what we did was show that there was a huge concern by the community to keep Cougar Island as it is now. This also helped the state raise money for the endowment, which goes back to our school system. So we really felt like it was a win win for everybody. We helped a landowner secure their property by buying the conservation easement, by working with the landowner on their private land. We helped secure that. That part of Cougar Island wouldn't expand. And what's important to note is, you know, a lot of times development breeds development. So, we wanted to curtail the development that we had on Cougar Island and make sure that it wouldn't expand and also helped the Endowment Trust by closing that property sale by that homeowner and brought quite a bit of money into the endowment trust. So, we're really proud of that accomplishment. It definitely took a whole community united Payette is made up of a lot of organizations and a lot of individuals here in McCall. And so, there's no way that we couldn't have done it without a big. Community effort, which is what it's really going to take to conserve. The private lands in the west central part of Idaho.

PRENTICE: In perpetuity. Worth repeating.

UTTER: That is correct.

PRENTICE: So, I guess that that dovetails very nicely into a pretty high-profile event that's coming up Saturday.

UTTER: That's right. This is our third Annual Conservation Day barbecue. And we just invite the community to come out and learn about conservation in our area. So it's a great opportunity if you're at all interested in conservation to come on up and you will be able to talk to a plethora of conservation groups. Payette Land Trust does certain things. Save the South Fork, does certain things, Forest Service does certain things. And it can be very difficult to understand what each group is doing. So, it's a great opportunity to walk up and say, you know, what part are you playing in conservation? How can I be involved? How can I support you? Or just a generally great day to get out and celebrate the longest weekend of the year. And that's why we're doing it on the 17th. This is the longest Saturday before the solstice, so why not spend the longest weekend celebrating conservation?

PRENTICE: What is Big Heart Art?

UTTER: So, what the Payette Land Trust did last year was we came up with an idea to try and connect conservation and art. So, the idea that art and conservation have always been connected doesn't get talked about a lot. So what we did was we brought in a big fiberglass heart, a big puffy heart. It's two by three feet. And we put out a request for proposals for someone to paint what they felt was conserving the heart of Idaho. And it was such a great success. Last year, this heart traveled around McCall that we've decided to do it again this year. So we will unveil the 2023 Conserve the Heart of Idaho, Big Heart. So if you want to come and see what this heart is going to look like, we'll have our unveiling at the barbecue as well. And then over the course of the summer, this heart will travel around the city of McCall and other places and be put on display. And the idea is to connect people with art and conservation and just get more and more people thinking about the things that they love. The the parts of Idaho that you really connect with usually are outdoors. And we know that there's always a challenge to make sure that we're conserving the things that we love here in the west central mountains of Idaho.

PRENTICE: And what a great way to trigger conversation and quite frankly, especially with a younger generation, with kids.

UTTER: And it doesn't stop with just the heart. Marie Firmin, who has been the Idaho writer in residence for the last few years, lives in McCall, and she she adopted the Payette Land Trust and wrote some poetry for us on two of our properties that were then folded into a national anthology where other land trusts and poets got together and talked about conservation. And then the poetry was based around the lands that were conserved. So through Marie, we had another form of connecting art through conservation and conservation through art. And then we've got a gal named Mary Arnold, who is going to be our artist in residence here for the Payette Land Trust, and she's going to go visit our properties over the summer and create some great works of art that we can use to promote our cause and put up for auction.

PRENTICE: These are historic times for you, right? This is a moment for your organization.

UTTER: Yes. We're 30 years old this year. So there's some deep roots in conservation in Idaho. Idaho Conservation League turns 50 this year, turns 30 this year. And we want to celebrate that idea that folks have really been paying attention to conservation in our area for quite a long time. And everything that we do at the Payette Land Trust, we work with private landowners is voluntary, but it's also in perpetuity. So when we conserve a piece of property, it goes on forever. A lot of people ask, What does Payette Land Trust get out of an agreement with a private landowner? And the first thing I tell everybody is a lifetime job. So what we're doing is we're saying we're going to carry forward that private landowners conservation ethic into the future. And we do that through an agreement in perpetuity. So we're here forever.

PRENTICE: Conservation Day on one of the longest days of the year, Craig Utter is with the Payette Land Trust. Craig, have a grand time this weekend and thanks for giving us some time this morning.

UTTER: We appreciate you taking the time to let us talk about this. This is a fantastic opportunity for all of us who care about this part of the world to just come out and talk to the people who are on the ground working to conserve what we love best about Idaho, and that's the outdoors.

PRENTICE: Thanks, Craig.

UTTER: Thanks, George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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