Ten years from now, Cougar Bay might have been the name of the newest housing development on Lake Coeur d'Alene, or perhaps it would have been another destination hotel to rival the coppery monolith just two-and-a-half miles to the northeast. But due to the combined efforts of concerned citizens, preservation advocates and -- believe it or not -- the Crown Pacific lumber company, Cougar Bay might very well look the same as it does now, except with more native tree and plant species, better water quality and a thriving wild bird population.
Such is the power of the Nature Conservancy. Since 1951, this international organization has protected more than 14.5 million acres in the United States (and 83.5 million acres elsewhere in the world). And rather than spiking trees or other dramatic methods of intervention, the Nature Conservancy does it the good old-fashioned way. They cooperate.
"The Nature Conservancy is known for their nature preserves," says Steve Grourke, Inland Northwest Program Coordinator for the North Idaho branch of the Nature Conservancy. "We have 1,500 nature preserves across the United States. And one of the methods we're most well known for is buying land to protect it, but that's just one of the tools that we use."
Whether the Nature Conservancy is purchasing land, negotiating easements or fundraising for conservation, the organization often works with government and corporate entities in order to find a mutually satisfying solution.
"Wherever we work, we have a network of partners. We don't just come in and take over. In the case of the next phase of preservation at Cougar Bay, for instance, we're partnering with the Bureau of Land Management and Anchor House, which is the local chapter of the Idaho Youth Ranch. The kids of Anchor House are learning actual stewardship; they're becoming the caretakers of that land. It's a great partnership."
The Cougar Bay project started in the mid-1990s when concerned citizens living in the area began to worry about the effects of upland forest deforestation on both the wetlands and the animals known to frequent the area. In 1998, the Nature Conservancy bought 90 acres from Crown Pacific, with an additional purchase of land from the BLM in the works for this fall.
"It's the last undeveloped wetland on Lake Coeur d'Alene," explains Grourke. "The wetland is home to 150 different bird species, and the preserve also affects all the animals that migrate in over Highway 95: black bear, whitetail deer, moose, elk, osprey, a pair of nesting bald eagles."
Cougar Bay is one of many Nature Conservancy preserves that is open to the public. There are hiking trails, places to kayak, birdwatching opportunities, an interpretive kiosk and restrooms. Other preserves, for instance the Ball Creek preserve north of Bonners Ferry, are slightly more limited.
"At the Nature Conservancy, we try not to have a cookie-cutter approach to land preservation. Our land acquisition and preservation management strategies are usually developed on a case-by-case basis," says Grourke. "I'd say that Cougar Bay is 100 percent accessible to the public. Ball Creek, because it's a working ranch, has certain areas that are off limits. But people can still hike, go mountain climbing and snowshoeing there."
Although the North Idaho branch of the Nature Conservancy is aligned with two Idaho-specific projects, its influence is often more far-reaching in scope.
"When you're looking at biodiversity and natural communities, one of the first things you realize is that they don't recognize state borders. We work in specific eco-regions, which are large landscapes with a similar geomorphology," he says. "This area is part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain eco-region, which includes North Idaho, Eastern Washington to just east of Colville, Western Montana up to Glacier National Park and parts of Southern B.C. up to Jasper National Park. The Coeur d'Alene office here manages the Inland Northwest part of that greater landscape, but the entire region is still affected by what we do."
Nature Conservancy North Idaho Office: (208) 676-8176