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The now famous Boise greenbelt was conceived in 1964 when a consultant suggested creating a natural ribbon of public land along the river that flowed through the heart of town. The river, dirty and neglected—as rivers tended to be in those days—was less a shining piece of nature than a garbage can where residents dumped their trash, industries distributed their waste, and even raw sewage could be seen drifting past. But the consultant’s suggestion came at the right time—the dawn of the environmental era in America. Citizens listened, became enthused and began organizing. Property owners donated three parcels, the first of a long line of donations. In 1968 the Parks Commission, with only $182,000 in hand, approved a Greenbelt Plan and Guidelines; the City of Boise followed in 1969 by naming a Greenbelt and Pathways Committee, and in 1971 by adopting its first greenbelt ordinance, a key feature of which was a mandate that all structures and parking lots be at least seventy feet from the river.

The original aim was to create a green trail for about ten miles. Officials and residents worked together to acquire land and built a path, offering expertise and leg-work. By 1974 the first stretch was complete, and the vision expanded to create an even longer greenbelt. The city acquired land by any method it could, buying, exchanging, leasing, and encouraging gifts from any willing property owner. At the same time it set aside what public funds it could scrounge from its budget while soliciting (or praying for) donations. As the Idaho Statesman remembered in 1999, “hundreds of other people offered their expertise, sweat and brains to move the project forward.”

Not that the task was inevitably easy despite general public support. One time when officials were studying a lake, “‛A canal ditch rider pulled a shotgun on us,’” and “Some landowners fought viciously to keep the public from crossing their back yard and other parts of their land via the Greenbelt.”

But unlike many other local governments which have been known to retreat hastily at the first sign of private opposition, or to swoon before any developer demanding his rights to get a zoning change to build voluminous numbers of houses on limited acreage—the officials apologizing profusely while amending and re-amending their community plan out of existence—Boise leaders held firm. If land was unavailable they built around it and waited for the owner to sell; if funds were scarce, they waited again—but always with the long-term goal firmly in mind. Time, they felt, was on their side—twenty, thirty, forty years out, as long as it took—the dream remained irrevocable and inviolate.

In 1987, because everyone realized that the task was too great for government alone, the Boise River Trail Foundation was created to provide impetus where the government could not. For those who tend to believe that such foundations can be more style than substance, more good intentions than achievements, this one proved them wrong: donations of land, funding, materials and donated labor poured in, and the city had an indispensable ally. Over the years, among other projects, the foundation built two miles of paved path along an old railroad bed and constructed two bridges, one of which was at a site where for fifteen years property owners had prevented access.This bridge permitted the path to progress.

In 1998, because the greenbelt had extended for so many miles—to Garden City, in fact—and had seen so many other communities build portions of it—Napa, Caldwell, Middleton, Star, and Eagle—as well as the counties of Ada and Canyon—the foundation restructured itself as F.A.C.T.S.: i.e., the Foundation for Ada-Canyon Trails Systems, “an alliance to support and comment upon bicycle/pedestrian projects and agendas that reflect the spirit of co-operation among the various entities.” Its principal goal was “closing the gap on the Greenbelt.” In 2010 it earned a $103,000 Recreational Trails Program grant to build 3.2 miles of additional trail while obtaining easements from property owners, thus linking Garden City and Eagle. By this time the trail was 25 miles long, and the vision now was to lengthen it to 63 miles, so that one day a person could bike all the way from Lucky Peak Dam to the junction of the Boise and Snake rivers.

Success breeds success, and in 2013 the Idaho Transportation Department awarded a $1.36 million federal grant to fill in a major gap with a paved path, four underpasses and a bridge. The 7.4 percent local match was funded by impact fees, which helped support the greenbelt—a long way indeed from the original $182,000.

As for economic value, it was there right enough, and grew as the greenbelt grew. Micron CEO Ward Parkinson knew when he became involved in the 1980s that “a Greenbelt would serve economic development, helping to recruit the trained professionals Micron and other businesses needed then, and still need. The Greenbelt is a living, growing symbol of our quality of life and our love of the environment and recreation and a selling point for our region.”*

Maintenance was forever ongoing. For example, in October of 2013 the Main Street Tunnel was closed to repair a concrete slab that had risen hazardously due to continued freezing and thawing; and $300,000 was spent to replace dilapidated asphalt with a more durable concrete surface from Lander Street to Willow Lane; in December, on a section along Warm Springs Avenue, an eroding shoulder and drainage problems were corrected while a detour was established for pedestrians; also in December, crews repaired an eroded section of riverbank near Riverbend Lane: the bank was armored with riprap and overplanted with native vegetation and trees; in January of 2014 trees were pruned from the Broadway Bridge to the West Parkcenter Bridge, while restrooms were closed for repairs at Marianne Williams Park; and in February potholes were repaired near the Broadway Bridge.

New projects required river enhancement. For instance, in mid-2013 the McMillen company won a bid to design Phase II of the Boise River Park which would replace an inefficient diversion structure with a more efficient one. The change would enhance river flow while enlarging the nearby whitewater park, improving flood-conveyance and restoring in-stream and riparian zone habitat. While the city was paying for the design, once again it was private donations that would fund construction.

Floods? Yes, they had occurred and would occur again. Said the city’s website: “Although three dams (Anderson Ranch, Arrowrock and Lucky Peak) control the release of water, unusual climatic events such as heavy winter snowfall and warm wet springtime conditions can and have caused release rates from the dams to be high enough to cause widespread local flooding in the Boise area. In addition, sudden and severe thunderstorms can cause flash flooding on the various ditches that drain into the Boise urbanized area. Ongoing development within the City and County continues.”

But rather than fight nature with floodwalls, etc., Boise preferred the natural way:

“Floodplains are a natural component of the Boise City and Treasure Valley environment,” said the city. “Understanding and protecting the natural functions of floodplains helps reduce flood damage and protect resources. When flooding spreads out across the floodplain, its energy is dissipated, which results in lower flows downstream, reduced erosion of the streambank and channel, deposition of sediments higher in the watershed and improved groundwater recharge. Floodplains are scenic, valued wildlife habitat, and suitable for farming. Poorly planned development in floodplains can lead to streambank erosion, loss of valuable property, increased risk of flooding to downstream properties and degradation of water quality.”

To deter this, the city recommended several approaches that property owners already in the floodplain could take, including elevating their homes, relocating to higher ground, constructing their own floodwalls or berms, and flood-proofing and protecting utilities. All new construction in the floodplain had “to be anchored against movement by floodwaters, resistant to flood forces, constructed with flood-resistant materials and flood-proofed or elevated so that the first floor of living space, as well as all mechanical and services, is a least 1 foot above the elevation of the 100-year flood.” Substantial improvements to existing structures had to meet the same requirements while “most other types of development … also require a floodplain development permit, such as grading cut and fill, installation of riprap and other bank stabilization techniques.”

*As recalled by long-time official Judy Peavy-Derr in 2012.

  • “ACHD agrees to pave 3.2-mile section of Greenbelt, thanks to efforts of Idaho legislative candidate Judy Peavey-Derr and others,” Judy Peavey-Derr website, Boise, Idaho, September 27, 2012.
  • “Floodplains,” City of Boise, Boise, Idaho, undated.
  • “Greenbelt,” City of Boise, Boise, Idaho, undated.
  • Greenbelt News, City of Boise, Boise, Idaho, October 2013 to February 2014.
  • “Greenbelt News, End of the Year Update: Ann Morrison to Main Street,” Boise Parks and Recreation newsletters, Boise, Idaho, December 20, 2013.
  • “McMillen Awarded Boise River Park PH2 Contract,” Boise River Park: A Community Recreation & Environmental Partnership, Boise Idaho, November 21, 2013.
  • Ellie Rodgers. “Among the challenges: buying land and getting easements,” Idaho Statesman, Boise, Idaho, September 28, 1999.
  • “Statement of Qualifications for RFQ 13-171 / Desing [sic]-Build Servies for Boise City Boise River Park Phase II,” McMillen (DESIGN with Vision, BUILD with Integrity, Boise, Idaho, July 24, 2013.
  • Various sub-articles, F.A.C.T.S. Foundation for Ada-Canyon Trail Systems, website, Boise, Idaho, undated.

© Bruce Bledsoe

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