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The Laura Moore Cunningham

Chuck McDevitt, Foothills Conservation Advisory Committee chair

Joan Cartan-Hansen: Tell us how you got involved in preserving the Foothills.

Chuck McDevitt: I was a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission of Boise and the more we dealt with the property, the parks and those kinds of things, the more obvious it became that we also had to do some preservation of open space, which is a playground for everyone. If you look at a photograph of Boise, the prominent things always in the background are the hills, the Boise Foothills, and a good deal of Boise recreates in those Foothills. Others see them and that visual aspect is something they enjoy every day. So it's a property that is enjoyed I think by virtually everyone in Boise.

Up until about 1990, the preservation of Foothills land had always been on an isolated basis primarily motivated by people who lived near a specific parcel that was about to be altered, as they saw it, in a fashion that was not good. We felt that we had to take an overview of the entire Foothills. Jim Hall had just become director of Parks and Recreation, and Jim was a fellow of great vision. This was really primarily Jim's vision. I was just there to help expedite it.

Chuck McDevitt at a Foothills trailhead

In 1990, a great deal of the trail system that existed, which was only about 75 or 80 miles was across private ground. It was used by permission. There wasn't any legal agreement or right to use those trails and the Foothills property. Most of the lower property was privately owned and the upper property was publicly owned, so we thought there was a real risk that the public would be cut off from accessing the upper public ground because of development in the lower Foothills.

So we started by meeting with John Finn, who was then the regional director of the Bureau of Land Management. With John, we laid out what we thought would be a concept of joint management of the Foothills between all the public agencies that existed: the United States Forest Service, the Department of Fish and Game, Ada County, Boise City, the Idaho State Department of Lands and other, somewhat similar, private agencies that had a public purpose.

John was interested. So by 1992, the memorandum of understanding for the creation of the Boise Front, Boise Foothills Trail System was signed by all of those public agencies. That was the basis for us to begin to see what more we could do to establish rights to access that ground across trail systems.

JCH: What significance did that agreement have in terms of setting what we have today?

Chuck: Oh, a great deal. It was unique at that point in time for agreements among all of those agencies: federal, state and local. And without that, we wouldn't have had the base upon which to build our serial levy and our programs to obtain legal right to cross other property, either by getting a conservation easement, a recreation easement or in some cases actually purchasing the ground.

JCH: At what point did the group come to the general conclusion that we needed to actually start buying land?

Chuck: I think that was always apparent that there were some people who were just not going to give you that which you wanted. They were going to insist on some remuneration, in large measure because the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the person who had initially purchased the land now controlled a number of the larger holdings.

In one of the first properties we negotiated, there were 17 people involved in the negotiations. It took us about a year and a half to meet the needs of all those people. So it was obvious that we would have to buy land if we were going to reach our goal of protecting and preserving the trail systems across Boise Front.

JCH: Did you expect the Foothills levy to pass the way it did?

Sign in support of Foothills levey

Chuck: Oh yes. We had been working on that since 1990. Mayor Brent Coles became enthusiastic about it - appointed a committee to investigate whether or not it could pass. We then took samples to find out what would be the opinion of the residents of Boise. The Idaho Conservation League came up with some money to help us fund that. Rick Johnson was critical in that respect. And with that information in hand, we went to the Council and they agreed that they would put that on the ballot.

The mayor then appointed a committee to run the campaign because no city funds could be used. The city couldn't be involved. But the mayor was an advocate for it and was crucial to the passage of it. Without him I doubt if we'd have obtained the success we did. It was one of the largest turnouts in Boise City elections and we won 59% of the vote. So we were quite happy with the outcome.

Lauren McLean who is now on the City Council, ran the campaign for us. Paul Woods headed the finance committee and raised almost $200,000 to fund the initiative, fund the program. There were a number of people who were very critical. So everybody just participated. It was wonderful.

JCH: After the levy passed, what then?

Chuck: The mayor appointed the Foothills Conservation Advisory Committee and we have met every month since 2003 when we had the money. The money was collected in 2002 and 2003. We've had a tremendous committee. We meet at 7:30 in the morning and it goes until 9 o'clock. We promise them they'll be out by 9 and so we try to keep that commitment. And they are wonderful people. We have about 17 people who have stuck with it. Tremendous volunteers. There's no compensation for it.

We make recommendations to the Council. Only the Council can spend the money, but we have the right to make recommendations to them.

JCH: There was a time when people didn't look at the Foothills as something to be preserved. It was something to be developed. True?

Chuck: Oh yes. I think that was that mentality until people saw really what would be the effect of it. Traffic through the north end of Boise would have been far greater than it is today. Sewer problems would have increased dramatically at that point in time and you would have lost the right that people have to go into those Foothills and to ride a bike, or to walk, to take your family. That 80 miles of trails have now expanded to 140 miles and so it has been a real plus for everyone. And those people who live in the west part of Boise can look up and still see those Foothills and they're not covered with houses like they are in Los Angeles.

JCH: On another subject, what was "The Great Mud Bath of 1959?"

Chuck: It started with a series of fires in the Foothills followed by rain. It was an unusual storm that, I think, dropped about 3 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. The rain simply loosened the topsoil and it all came running down the canyons and gulches.

Man shoveling mud off residential sidewalk into wheelbarrow

The principal ones were Cottonwood Creek, which is right at the base of Military Reserve. That mud came onto what is now the baseball field and recreation area there and flowed down to Broadway Avenue. The city banked Broadway with sacks, sandbags in order to keep it from overflowing and directed it all the way down to the river.

Mud also came down Maynard's Gulch, which is out by the new East Junior High School and Warm Springs Creek, which is about where Harris Ranch is located, but Boise hadn't grown that far east yet.

JCH: What did it look like?

Chuck: Oh, it was a mess. It was just flowing mud. The viscosity of it was tremendous and anywhere that it flowed you had a difficult clean up problem. People with homes on Avenue A and on the street leading up to the old armory, Reserve Street there, had basements full of mud. Their houses and their lawns were full of mud.

JCH: It seemed the aftermath of that was a bit of a turning point because agencies started to work together that hadn't worked together before.

Chuck: I think the agencies had a view that it was more than a simple one-agency problem. When those things happened, whether it was that kind of an incident or whether it was a fire or any of the things that could and do take place in the Boise Foothills, they all had to be involved. And they still are. They all give money to the trail system and help maintain that. Julia Grant is now running the weed program in the Boise Front. All of them are involved in that program. So it's a sense of coming together on our hills, not just my hills or your hills.

JCH: Why should we care about the Foothills?

Chuck: Because they are an asset of Boise. They represent what Boise has been and I think will be in the future, which is a town that is close enough to nature and close enough to open space that you can enjoy it. You don't have to travel great distances to enjoy it. You can still go a little further and have a different experience, but here in the Foothills you can enjoy horseback riding, mountain biking, walking, taking your dogs on leash in some areas and off leash in other areas. Your children can enjoy it. The trail system is diverse. It's difficult, it's less difficult, it's easy, and so you have use for everyone. I think it is one of the few assets the city has that everyone can see, touch or use.

JCH: Some people argue that it's not really outdoors. If you don't have to get in a car and drive two hours, then you're not really experiencing nature. Do you agree?

Chuck: That's most people's definition of nature. We all have a different definition. Anytime that you can experience unfettered access to something and enjoy open space that doesn't have buildings and roads and that kind of thing in your way, I think that is nature. I like hunting and I like getting into the backcountry, but still how often can you do that in the course of a year? You can be to the Foothills.

I was lucky enough to be involved with people like Jim Hall and the mayor and others so that we could work together and accomplish a goal. We all had the common goal and we set out to do it and so I was fortunate enough to be a person at the right time at the right place to be a part of all this.

Scenic view of sky and Boise Foothills

JCH: But why do it?

Chuck: My wife and I have always been involved in these kinds of activities. I think if you are going to enjoy the banquet of life every once in a while you've got to do some dishes and this is doing some dishes, as far as I'm concerned. This is some payback for what my kids, my family and I have enjoyed.