Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Land Conservancy: Protecting and Conserving Lands

In addition to generating hydroelectricity, Avista Utilities, headquartered in Spokane, Wash., is committed to protecting trout streams, lakeshores, old growth forests, and wetlands. An outgrowth of that commitment – and of the company’s landmark collaborative approach to relicense its Clark Fork hydroelectric project – is Avista’s partnership in the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Land Conservancy.

A land conservancy such as the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Conservancy works with local landowners to preserve open space and wildlife habitat primarily by acquiring conservation easements, which are legal agreements between landowners and the conservancy. The landowner retains ownership and can, in most cases, continue the current use of the land. The difference is that designated resources of the parcel are protected in perpetuity.

By granting an easement to a conservancy, a landowner may gain significant financial advantages, such as a federal income tax deduction or a reduction in property taxes or estate taxes. Every conservation easement is unique, but can be a great tool for landowners who want to, for example, protect a scenic view or save old growth forests.

Why the need for a land trust?

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC’s) new operating license for Avista’s Clark Fork Project contains 26 specific protection, mitigation, and enhancement measures to address the effects of operating the project’s two hydro plants: 265-MW Cabinet Gorge in northern Idaho and 466-MW Noxon Rapids in northwestern Montana, both on the Lower Clark Fork River. Measures include: restoring native salmonid species, protecting and educating the public about bull trout, managing land use and recreation in the project areas, and protecting fish and wildlife habitat.

The new project license, effective March 2001, adopted the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement, which led to establishing the Clark Fork Management Committee, made up of representatives from 27 stakeholder organizations. This committee oversees implementation of the protection, mitigation, and enhancement measures called for in the FERC license.

Avista Utilities, Spokane, Wash., is working with the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Conservancy to grant a conservation easement on its 156-acre parcel of land in the Bull River watershed in northwestern Montana.
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Early on, the Clark Fork Management Committee recognized that implementing the 26 measures most likely would require the acquisition of land or conservation easements for protecting wetlands, fisheries and wildlife habitat, and recreation sites.

Committee members began to explore the various options for acquiring the needed land, including: Avista’s outright purchase of property, Avista working with other organizations such as state or federal fish and wildlife agencies or non-profit conservation groups to acquire lands, or establishing a land conservancy.

Establishing the conservancy

The committee looked at two existing land trusts in Spokane, Wash., and Kalispell, Mont. Both had limited resources and neither included board members from the Clark Fork Project area. Furthermore, neither was able to do business in both Idaho and Montana.

So, the committee decided to form a new land trust, the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Conservancy. The trust has eleven board members, representing: Lake Pend Oreille Idaho Club; Idaho Fish and Game; Tri-State Water Quality Council; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Green Mountain Conservation District; Cabinet Resource Group; Sanders County; Elk Creek Watershed Council; and Avista. Two citizens-at-large also are members.

The mission of the conservancy is to work cooperatively within the Clark Fork Project watershed to protect, maintain, and enhance natural resources and recreation values that contribute to the quality of life in the area. Members of the conservancy are especially interested in protecting the aquatic habitat for bull and cutthroat trout and other habitat for terrestrial wildlife in the Lower Clark Fork corridor. The conservancy also works to protect lands with resource values outside those associated with Avista’s Clark Fork project.

Avista agreed to fund the startup of the conservancy with an initial $50,000 payment. The conservancy used this money to cover legal fees to form the non-profit organization, initial hiring of an executive director, and development of a strategic plan. As the conservancy becomes a self-sustaining non-profit organization, future costs will be paid using stewardship fees associated with conservation easements, grants, contract work, and partnerships arising from the implementation of the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement, and fund-raising efforts.

The board of directors believes a salaried director position has advantages over a volunteer position. A paid director can completely focus on ensuring the organizational tasks of the conservancy are completed, and is able to spend more time becoming known in the community and promoting the conservancy.

Accomplishments so far

In the past two years, the conservancy has secured four conservation easements, providing perpetual protection of about 400 acres of key riparian habitat. These projects all were associated with the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement activities and have included both purchased and donated easements. The conservancy hopes to double the number conservation easements and acres protected within the next year.

One exciting development is the fact that more than half of these new projects are completely independent of the settlement agreement. This is a good indication of how the conservancy is becoming accepted as a local entity to help local landowners protect the resources that make this a special place.

Lessons learned

Hydro project owners wanting to establish a land conservancy would be wise to see if there are existing organizations in the area. It’s not worth reinventing the wheel if it can be avoided.

Also, it’s important to have strong working relationships and a high level of trust among all of the stakeholders wanting to preserve natural resources. It will make forming a conservancy easier in the long run.

It typically takes five to ten years to get a conservancy up and running, so it requires a long-term commitment. We were able to expedite this process by having the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement, which provided direction and funded projects for the conservancy.

If at all possible, hire an executive director who can help with organizational issues and fund-raising efforts.

For Avista Utilities, working with an independent organization comprised of local people who understand the way of life and economics of the area to protect habitat and natural resources associated with the utility’s hydroelectric projects provides us another tool in working with potential sellers of private property in meeting our mutual needs. Typically, local landowners prefer working with neighbors and people they know who are committed to the area.

“It is gratifying to me personally to be associated with a locally based land trust like the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Conservancy,” says Jim Watkins, president of the board. “Having volunteered my time with many other organizations over the past 25 years working to preserve our local environment, to finally have a viable local land trust helping local landowners achieve both their financial and conservation goals is a dream come true. This could not have occurred without the hard work of many local supporters whose passion for saving our ‘last best place’ will provide a legacy for everyone.”

– By Nate Hall, Clark Fork terrestrial program leader, Avista Corp., P.O. Box 3727; MSC-1, Spokane, WA 99220-3727; (1) 406-847-1281; E-mail: nate. Mr. Hall serves as secretary on the conservancy’s board of directors.

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