By Trish Gannon
Frank and Dona Cook were city born and bred, but that didn't stop them from heading out into the woods as often as they could. The wilder and more remote the campsite, the better. And once there, one would invariably remark to the other, "If only we had a home, right here."
It's a phrase they still use, but now it's a family joke, because they finally do have a home "right here," a beautiful two-story, custom-built redwood home in the woods south of Sandpoint. And they've made a commitment to keep their property as wild as they can.
It all started in 1993, when the couple was visiting Dona's mom, who lives in Sandpoint. In walks around her neighborhood, they came upon a house being built by Baker Construction. They would frequently stop and visit with Brent Baker, the owner of the company, while he was on the construction site. They told him about their dream of living out in the woods; he, in turn, told them of some property he had for sale, four 20-acre splits from his own acreage near Careywood.
"I warned them it was remote, (and) I didn't think anything would ever come of it," he said. He was later surprised when the Cooks called, asking to see the property.
"I took them down a rabbit track through the woods, all hunched over and pushing our way through the underbrush," Baker explained. "And I kept thinking to myself that this was crazy; they'd never want a place way out in the woods like this." Unbeknownst to Baker, however, Dona Cook was whispering, "This is it."
"It" turned out to be the piece of property closest to Baker's own, with a clearing overlooking two beaver ponds. The Cooks bought it, and hired Baker to design their dream home.
The Cooks went back to city life, tying up loose ends, taking early retirement and planning their move to the woods. Before they could return, one of their beaver dams blew out, washing out the road to their property and flooding Little Blacktail Road, more than two miles downstream. The Cooks didn't hesitate to repair the dam.
"The beaver were damming up the culvert under the road," Baker said. "We had to rebuild the road, and put a cage over the culvert that was small enough to keep the beaver out, and big enough to let the cutthroat trout through."
"Brent offered to buy the property back from us (after the dam broke)," Dona said, "but there was no way I was giving this property up."
Pick the animal and "I'll think of the story," Dona says about the wildlife that live on their property. The pond attracts a prodigious amount of waterfowl, and some use the nesting boxes the Cooks have placed around it. "When the geese come in the spring, they own this pond," Dona said. Moose are regular visitors, feeding on the swampy grasses and Dona, who's made a new passion out of studying her local wildlife, says she can't wait to start learning about the "thousands of frog voices" she hears singing throughout the day.
On their coffee table, they keep a small album of photographs of the wildlife they've seen around their home; a bobcat sitting on the deck, a chipmunk stealing her bird feed, a cougar lying in the driveway eyeing a nesting goose.
Maintaining a natural habitat is the main reason why there's so much wildlife on their property, according to Dona. "We haven't planted gardens; we don't landscape." Another reason is the lack of pets. "We like (pets) but we decided not to have them here," Frank said.
They've also taken the step of designating their property, now 40 acres, as a "Stewardship Forest."
To restore the wetlands on the west side of the house, the Cooks applied for and secured a grant from the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Wetlands Trust. After the first beaver dam blew, "The beavers didn't seem to want to rebuild that part," Dona explained, "so we'll do it ourselves." She talks eloquently of the importance of maintaining wetlands in a time when they are disappearing throughout the world at an alarming pace.
The opportunities for living in "wild" areas and co-existing with wildlife are almost endless in North Idaho, where the majority of land is owned by various governmental agencies; where grizzlies, caribou, bald eagles and other threatened and endangered wildlife live; and where some contractors, developers and homeowners are taking an interest in keeping it that way.
Trish Gannon lives at the edge of wilderness with six tame cats in Clark Fork.
On becoming a good steward
The state's Stewardship Forest Program -- part of the Forest Stewardship Act of 1990 -- is designed to address the need for more intensive management of natural resources on private lands. Available to landowners who own 1,000 acres or less of qualifying land, it also provides funding to help pay for provisions in a 10-year management plan.
Frank and Dona Cook are glad they joined the program for a number of reasons: they benefit from a property tax break; they became more familiar with their land; and it helped them develop an outline for wildlife protection.
"You have to draw up a plan of how you're going to manage your forest property," Dona said, "and it's very extensive, but simple to do (because) they come out and help you do it. And it helps you to know your property."
The Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Wet-lands Trust provides limited funding to document objectives, work on reforestation and afforestation, improve existing forests, deal with windbreaks, hedgerows, water quality, soil productivity, wetlands, riparian areas, and fisheries and wildlife habitat.
To learn more about the Stewardship Forest Program, contact the local office for the Idaho Department of Lands, 208/263-5104, or the Bonner County Extension Service, 208/263-8511. You may also try reaching the U.S. Department of Agriculture Service Centers at 208/263-5310, or call 1-800-IDAHO4U.
The National Resource Conservation Service offers a Backyard Conservation Campaign that focuses on 10 areas: backyard ponds, backyard wetlands, composting, mulching, nutrient management, pest management, terracing, tree planting, water conservation and wildlife habitat. Tip sheets on each area, along with a colorful, 28-page brochure, are available for free by calling 1-888-LANDCARE.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is another valuable resource on protecting and enhancing wildlife habitat. Call the local office in Coeur d'Alene, 208/769-1414, for more information and to inquire about nesting boxes for mountain bluebird -- Idaho's state bird -- available for a nominal price.
Steady growth in the local real estate marketplace over the last couple of years was punctuated by a spike in the first quarter of the year 2000. "I think property in the whole county is beginning to show some impact from Harbor (the company that bought Schweitzer late in 1998) to unrest in the more urban areas of the country," said Steve Van Horne, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Resort Realty.
First quarter increases may rely heavily on sales at the mountain, typically priced higher than other residential properties. According to figures from the Sandpoint Multiple Listing Service (MLS) for 1998, the average residential property spent 212 days on the market, and sold at a price of $121,797. That year 41.2 percent of the property on the market sold.
By 1999, properties spent only an average of 171 days on the market, and sold for a substantially higher price, $137,000. In that year, close to 40 percent of listings sold. But in the first three months of 2000, those numbers jumped.
In the first quarter, the average days to sell was 195, the average selling price was $160,088 -- more than a $20,000 increase -- and 36.5 percent of properties listed sold.
Van Horne stated that, if the market maintains a steady pace, throughout this year, then "2001 could be a tremendous year."
Another factor that might come into play this summer is the rapidly escalating price of gasoline, expected to hit $2 a gallon by July. Tourism still fuels a lot of the purchases within the county, as the majority of buyers are coming from out of the area. "Locally, there's just not many people here to begin with, and they're not moving around a lot," Van Horne said.
Those buyers who don't find the area as tourists, are increasingly finding it on the Internet, Van Horne added. "People who are looking for a specific thing never stumbled onto Sandpoint before. Now they do."
The area itself is the biggest thing that will continue to fuel sales. "Where else can you couple a major lake with a major ski area?" Van Horne asked. "We're much lower in price than many resorts, and it's a tremendous place to live."
Property designated by the MLS as "building sites" is seeing growth similar to that of residential. For '98, the average sale price was $54,335 after 279 days on the market. In '99, after spending an additional 31 days on the market, the average sale price had dropped to $47,750. But 2000 has started with a bang; 302 days on the market is netting an average sale price of $76,787. Van Horne suspects that jump in price may be because, "a lot of what's left (for sale) is really well-located."
Despite the initial gains in this quarter, Van Horne warns against counting on that growth to continue. "This is not a market to get conceited about," he said. "There's not a strong enough base here to call it a seller's market."
That base, however, is growing. Schweitzer continues to bring more tourists to the resort; the area continues to invest in local infrastructure, as evidenced by the new library and hospital addition; and living conditions elsewhere lose their appeal. Those factors ensure that more and more people will stumble across Sandpoint and, like so many before them, will cross the Long Bridge and find themselves a new home.