Boise Foothills: A Backyard, Not Just A Backdrop

My first introduction to the Boise Foothills was when my husband and I drove into the city the day it became our new home. We had visited twice before, but I hadn’t remembered seeing the hills. At least not the way they looked that day.

“What are those mountains?” I’d asked.  It was a clear, chilly day in mid-March with few clouds and lots of bright blue sky (quite common weather year-round, I later learned). The hills were mostly gold except where looming clouds scattered them with purple shadows. Coming from Georgia, I was thrilled to see snow dusting their peaks. My husband told me they were the Foothills. I admired how they seemed to protectively encircle the Capitol building, creating a stunning portrait of Boise that was hard to turn away from. “I can’t believe we live here,” I said.

In our three short years living in Boise, we’ve grown closer to the Foothills- both literally and figuratively. We bought a home in the East End where they appear to sprout from our backyard. The early evening sun highlights every knoll and ridge, making them pop with definition. We hike their trails and climb on top of their boulders in warmer months, and sled down their soft, snow-covered mounds after each fresh snow. They are loved, enjoyed, and revered not just by our family but many, many others.

As someone who has only lived in Boise three years, it’s remarkable to me how fiercely protective Boiseans are of their Foothills. After all, I’ve never lived in a neighborhood where people woke up early on a Saturday to pick up goat heads and dog waste at a nearby park. But Parks and Recreation’s Doug Holloway doesn’t think it’s remarkable at all. "We're very fortunate to have something a lot of communities don't have, and I think first and foremost that's what our citizens recognize. We have this unique asset right out our back door. The idea of not preserving it, not protecting it, and not making it available for conservation and recreation purposes doesn't make sense.”

Nearly 30 years ago, Gary Richardson and his wife Diane Ronayne were walking their dog through the Foothills near the Military Reserve when they spotted a ‘For Sale’ sign and couldn’t believe their good fortune. “I saw that house and its surrounding location, and I knew I had to have it,” Richardson says. His wife concurs, “The open space! The blue sky! Who wouldn’t want to live here?”

A house in the Foothills with an unobstructed view is a rarity, especially in 1986 when so few homes existed in the hills. It was difficult to run water, fuel, and electricity into the hills to supply homes, and therefore more expensive than living in the flatlands. But immaculate views and proximity to downtown Boise were an undeniable draw for developers. Unfortunately, the only guideline in place pertaining to development had been negotiated in 1978 to minimize disturbances to previously existing neighborhoods. This minor ordinance did not protect large areas of open space from residential development and steeper slopes from cut-and-fill construction, both of which were destined to disturb the hills’ natural outlines and vegetation. Uncomfortable with developers’ escalating plans for sprawling residential subdivisions along the hills’ ridges, concerned citizens and city officials decided to step in.

In 1993, Richardson and Ronayne, along with Anne Hausrath, Judy Ouderkirk, and several developer, city, and citizen groups laid the cornerstone of the Foothills preservation effort when they helped ‘Save Hulls Gulch’ by negotiating a three-way property exchange that put a halt to residential development in the gulch. This nature preserve, which is exactly 1.5 miles from the Capitol building, contains a wetland, a grove, and significant upland habitat. The purchase of 55 acres of land by citizens combined with 180 acres purchased from private landowners by the City of Boise created a 235-acre public natural area with trail access now known as Hulls Gulch Nature Preserve. Well-loved by joggers, bikers, birders, and nature enthusiasts, Hulls Gulch is still one of the jewels of the Foothills.

Once Hulls Gulch was safe from residential development, Gary Richardson set his sights on greater preservation efforts. He envisioned a public-access corridor from the Military Reserve northeast across what was then private land to the public land high in the hills. Richardson says, "Scott Simplot and I just went around and around about how to use all this land that the Simplot Company owned. I finally said to him, 'Look, Scott, this is going to be like Central Park up here, you've got to help us do this thing.' And he did." That vision led him, Ronayne, Barry Rose, John Barringer, and many others to found and lead the Boise Front Coalition, whose work in the 90s eventually lead to starting the Ridge to Rivers trail program and resulted in today’s miles of public trails through the Foothills. Citizens and businesses had helped raise the money to buy the acreage in Hulls Gulch, but the city decided to do something different to secure additional open space in 2001.

“Boise achieved something really remarkable by passing the Foothills Levy of ‘01,” says City Council member Lauren McLean. “The city and the mayor decided they wanted to ask voters to put aside money in order to purchase more open space in the Foothills.” McLean shares her experience overseeing the first Foothills Levy campaign, “We ran a very strategic grassroots campaign. We had over 500 donors and volunteers who would knock on doors and talk to residents about the importance of saving our Foothills.” She adds, “I haven’t really thought about it as residents taking ownership of the hills, but that’s really what it was. It was a band of residents that worked really hard to make the levy happen in 2001 because we all recognized how unique our open space in Boise was at that time, and still is, and we wanted to make sure we set it aside forever.” The Foothills Levy was successfully passed, resulting in the acquisition of 4,000 acres and protection of nearly 11,000 acres through various purchases, trades, and easements. Furthermore, as the protected acreage is valued at $37 million, the city has put its citizens’ tax dollars to good use, leveraging the $10 million collected by an astounding $27 million.

14 years later, Boise is nearing the end of its 2001 levy fund, but Boiseans are interested in replenishing it.  Director of Boise Parks and Recreation Doug Holloway says, “Probably the most asked question I get from the citizenry is ‘What's the next piece of property the city is looking at buying? What's the next step in preserving more open space?’” City Council has approved a 2015 ballot initiative that would establish a temporary, two-year override levy to preserve and protect water quality, wildlife, native plant habitat, and open space for recreation in the city’s Foothills and along the Boise River corridor. While some may question whether citizens who don’t live as close to the Foothills will support another levy, Lauren McLean is strongly optimistic. “Two years ago, rather than doing a levy, we had a bond on the ballot for fire and Foothills. That didn’t pass because to have a bond, you need 66%, but we did get 61%. For a levy, you only need 50%. I think we’ll see this time around there’s massive support for the Foothills across the entire city.” Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice-President Ray Stark says the Chamber supports the levy, explaining, “When we market our area, and show people what our community looks like, it seems like invariably those pictures are of the Foothills and the river. We show the downtown skyline with the hills in the background because they are part of who we are. This levy is a minimal cost to business and residents, and a great investment in the future. It’s just the right thing to do.”  

Boise’s Foothills have maintained their untamed look due to the unique relationship the city has with developers- a relationship that has come a long way since earlier preservation efforts.  It was only in 1994 that maximum growth plans for the Foothills predicted 52,000 homes would be added (at the time only 4,700 existed). Citizens, organizations like the Boise Front Coalition, and city officials stepped in to halt excessive development and have progressively reached an understanding with developers that it is essential to have a balance of open space and responsible development.  "When we talk to developers, I'm sure most of them would like to build a lot more, but they recognize that the development they're doing in the hills needs to be in concert with the environment.  It actually benefits them by doing it in a very controlled manner so that you preserve open space, recreational opportunities, and you're using your development to create some sort of connectivity in the Foothills as well. It benefits developers from the standpoint that it makes their property more valuable.”

Boise State University recently conducted a two-year research study through the Department of Regional and Community Planning that confirmed Boise does in fact have gold in its hills, so to speak. They found that if your home is located in the city by a park, the Greenbelt, or the Foothills there is a significant increase in your property’s value. While describing the study’s findings, Holloway clarifies, “Most people would say, ‘Well, of course it's worth more if it's next to a park’, but the overall influence that those collective properties have just in the city limits of Boise was estimated to be $587 million worth of property value influence based on just proximity to a park, the Greenbelt, or the Foothills. The economic value and the vibrancy these hills bring to our community are incredible.”

When Boiseans discuss why they need to protect their Foothills, legacy is inevitably mentioned. They want to preserve the legacy of the Foothills for their future generations. While hiking the Table Rock loop with East End Neighborhood Association President Tiffany Robb, I learned that this doesn’t mean they only want their children and grandchildren to hike these same trails and appreciate the views. “We don't have a dog but when we take our son out for a hike, we always bring a plastic bag for any trash or dog waste we might find. We avoid spots with more erosion and look for things we can mend along the way.  We try to teach our son the responsibility of taking care of these trails which are our environment and our world. As I walk along these same trails when he's not with me, I remember those moments with him and I hope he does too."

As we pause to admire the view from only halfway up the trail, Robb adds, "A friend told me once that we have to pass along this information and share these stories with younger generations because it's those generations that will continue these efforts. It’s in the midst of working for this community when you turn around and find that you've truly fallen in love with Boise."

Our Foothills are more than a backdrop; they’re our backyard. They’re our gateway to recreation and peace of mind. They’re beautiful to hike and beautiful to admire from afar. We’re proud of them and we protect them. And when my four-year-old daughter goes hiking with her dad in Hulls Gulch, as they do most Saturdays, I am thankful for the preservation efforts of so many that secured these hills just for moments like those.