Underwriting provided by:
The Laura Moore Cunningham

Jennifer Stevens, Environmental historian

Joan: Tell us about the history of the Foothills.

Jennifer Stevens: The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes used to gather in the area that is now Harris Ranch. It was the wintering grounds for the Native Americans. There were burial grounds in the area that we European Americans know as Castle Rock, just to the west of Table Rock. It still is a sacred site for them.

Native American encampment

European Americans started arriving in approximately the middle of the 19th century to what we now know as the Treasure Valley. They settled on the river bottom. They needed the water and the soil there was excellent for growing food.

The east Foothills area was primarily used for grazing. There wasn't a lot in the way of mining in our immediate Foothills.

In the late 1940s, people wanted to move outside of the central city of Boise. Bulldozers had improved so people could move the mountains out of the way so others could settle in these areas. In 1949, the very first Foothills subdivisions were established.

Gradually, through the middle of the 1960s, hundreds of people moved up into the Boise Foothills. The houses were built in a way that the city and the county would not allow today. Back at that time, people were building with 50 percent grades and cuts and so the hills themselves were torn down to create flat building lots so that people could build houses up in the Foothills.

JCH: Was there any movement at that point to try to stop people from going in the area or was it all just gung-ho and expand?

Bulldozer pushing mud off residential sidewalk

Jennifer: Great question. In August of 1959, there was a major fire in the Boise Foothills. It burned about 9,000 acres. Shortly after that, there were three huge torrential downpours. So here we have this area of the Foothills that was denuded by a lot of building and then a fire that ruined the topsoil. There was nothing to hold the dirt in place when these rains came. Mud came down into the north and east ends. It filled up the streets and front yards and the basements of many homes with 10 inches of mud. They called it the "Mud Bath of 1959." People realized that the stripping the Foothills of its natural vegetation in order to build houses was part of the problem that caused all this flooding.

The problem was that most of this land still lay in Ada County's hands and so the City of Boise didn't have jurisdiction over it. Following the Mud Bath of 1959, people began to petition Ada County to do something, to put some regulations and restrictions in place so that building would be restricted or that there would be some regulation about where you could build, how you would build, etc.

We start seeing some of the earliest iterations of restrictions on Foothills building in the early 1960s in Ada County. In the late 1960s, a relationship was finally formalized between Ada County and the City of Boise so that the City of Boise could apply what it considered to be important restrictions on Foothills building to land outside the city limits. We now know this cooperative agreement as the Area of Impact agreement.

Sign: For Sale 283 Acre Home Site

In the 1970s, when more citizens began to get involved, the restrictions became stricter. Because of citizen involvement, we began to see more scientific evidence to justify why we shouldn't be building in certain areas.

A geologist, Kenneth Hollenbaugh at Boise State University, was commissioned by the Ada Council of Governments to write a report on the geology of the Foothills. When he wrote this report, people suddenly realized there were actual active landslides in the eastern Foothills. They wondered if maybe people shouldn't be building on some of these areas.

The restrictions on development in the Foothills grew gradually as our understanding of the land, the wildlife and the plants grew. People were building smarter and less densely in the Foothills and leaving more open space for other citizens.

Fast forward ten or twenty years and a lot more people were using the land. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, people were riding 4-wheelers up there. Mountain biking was becoming popular and certainly people were hiking up there. That intensity of use helped citizens develop a much greater awareness of the value of the Foothills to all residents in Boise. It ranged from people who wanted the wilderness to stay wild with no motorized vehicles at all, to people who wanted to ensure that certain areas were set aside for motorized vehicles. So there were a vast number of people who wanted open space right outside the city limits to be saved for a variety of reasons.

Marchers holding signs in support of saving Hulls Gulch

In the 1980s, the "Save Hulls Gulch" effort was a major attempt to preserve Foothills land. At about the same time, Chuck McDevitt led an effort to bring various federal, state and local public agencies together to better manage the Boise Foothills as a whole.

JCH: So what came next?

Jennifer: In 2001, Mayor Brent Coles, who did some really amazing things for the parks in Boise, convened the Foothills Committee to talk about how to raise money and do some more big-picture things for the Foothills. That eventually led of course to the 2001 Foothills Levy when the city of Boise came out — a huge amount of people came out and voted.

The turnout was amazing. Fifty-nine percent of the people voted in favor of the Foothills levy which put a 10-year property tax on your property in order to raise money to buy land in the Foothills, and the results of that have been phenomenal. The money has been leveraged very well. The city has a number of properties now that are used for trails that people can go biking and hiking on and do really wonderful things for preservation of both the wildlife and the land in the Foothills.

Crowd at meeting in support of levy

The Foothills levy was also pretty significant in terms of what it meant to the city of Boise and how it changed people's thinking about the Foothills. I think when the Foothills levy passed it changed how people thought Boise should be and what Boise was going to be. There had been approximately 50 years of growth that really led us to that pinnacle point. It took 50 years for people to gradually recognize that Boise's Foothills were not this inhospitable menacing place but that they were beautiful places and that it was a beautiful backdrop to our capital city of the state.

Boise is about outdoor living. Boise is about quality of life. And by putting our money where our mouth is we actually are becoming that city and we're making a statement that that's the city we're going to be.

JCH: What do the Foothills mean to you?

Jennifer: The Foothills are where I spend a lot of my time. I take my family up there hiking, my kids, my husband and I take the dog. We go on picnics in the Foothills. I run in the Foothills - probably four to five times a week. They are just where I go to get away from my computer, where I go to get away from my office, get away from the kitchen, get away from all those places.

And it's so easy. I live a mile from the trailhead. I can just walk there. I can ride my bike there and be in wild lands right outside the city center within a mile from the Capitol in five minutes.

Jennifer Stevens and running companions on a Foothills trail

JCH: Why is that important?

Jennifer: When you are so connected to computers and telephones and email and all of those things that we're connected to it is really important for children, it is important everybody, to be able to get away from that and to commune with nature. It sounds really old-fashioned, but it is nice to be able to get away from the sound of all of those electronic things that are constantly buzzing us and hear birds, see foxes, see coyotes, which you can do in five minutes from the Capitol. It's pretty amazing that we still have that there.

It's not that it hasn't been altered by humans, because it has, and I think it is misleading to suggest that it is not human altered. But nature and the animals that live up there have certainly learned to adjust to the human activity. It is kind of a neat place where we can see human activity and wild activity living somewhat harmoniously.

JCH: What challenges do the Foothills face in the future?

Jennifer: It is certainly a challenge to accommodate that growing desire and appreciation and love of what the Foothills are with the need to protect them from too much human activity, including hiking and biking and motorbiking and hunting.

And people still want to live in the Foothills. Boise still gets applications from developers who want to put houses up there. Boise's challenge is to figure out how to accommodate the population's desire to be in the Foothills while not loving that place to death.

The balance that we have to strike as a city and as leaders is to make sure that we keep both populations healthy, the human and the natural population, if you can separate it that way, which I'm not sure that you can. There are a lot of people who want to use it and that presents its own set of challenges when we talk about the future.