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Ernie Lombard

Ernie Lombard, a retired Boise architect and 18 year member of the Idaho Park and Recreation Board, worked hard to make the Land of the Yankee Fork Park a reality. This interview was conducted by John Crancer near Bayhorse in August of 2013.

How did Bayhorse become a state park?
That’s a long story but I’ll try to do the short version.  The legislature wanted to have something special for the parks as a celebration for our 100 years of statehood. I proposed to the Parks Department to make Bayhorse a state park, because it’s from the same time as Idaho’s history, it was instrumental in the forming of the state, and it happened the same time as statehood. So, it all made sense. They liked the idea; unfortunately, we weren’t able to make the deal right then. It became almost a 30 year endeavor to actually create a state park.

Ernie Lombard at Bayhorse
Ernie Lombard at Bayhorse

What were some of the challenges?
The legislature gave state parks a million dollars to create the park. When they couldn’t make the deal on Bayhorse, they went ahead and built a visitor center as a fall back in Challis. Later, the owners of the mining company here had an epiphany and decided 10 years later that maybe they should have made a deal with the state, after all. So the owner of the company wrote a letter to state parks, sent it to the visitor center here, and asked if we were still interested in Bayhorse. Everyone thought it was a joke, because he wrote it on a school pad in long hand. It didn’t look like an official letter at all, and yet it was.

We said we’re going to do it differently this time; and we got the Nature Conservancy involved to help negotiate the land purchases. I went to the DEQ and the EPA and asked them for help on bended knee. They thought that was a good idea so they got on board as well.  For funding we put together a package where we actually used off-road vehicle money to buy Bayhorse.  The reason we were able to do that is I went around and visited with all the motorized recreation folks and told them the story. Bayhorse is very unique and it’s a wonderful place to come and to ride your ATV’s, ride your trail bikes, to hike, to ride your horse. I couldn’t be more excited to have it actually turn out as a state park.

Did the agencies help you with grant money?
You can’t ask people to come and walk around a contaminated mine site; and you can’t really let them climb around old dilapidated collapsing buildings. We knew we didn’t have the money to restore the buildings; and we wanted to leave them in the arrested state that they’re in. So the legislature said, okay, you show us how we can make a plan that you can use a site like this, and ask the public to come to it, and have it be safe for the public so the state does not have some implied liability.

Bayhorse in the 1930s
Bayhorse in the 1930s

So the Department of Environmental Quality stepped up to the plate and said, we can get you some grants to help you with that, and we can help you with some funding to mitigate some of that mining tailings.  One of the attorneys said, all we ever get to do is sue people and put them out of business, and everybody’s mad when they get to the end of the deal, and nobody’s happy, and we don’t make a park or anything. We just make some place safe, and we all leave, and that’s it. They said this is an opportunity to have a positive outcome where people can come and enjoy and learn the history, and see a positive outcome to a contaminated site, and we want to be part of that, and so we want to help you. They really liked the idea of being able to do that. That’s a different approach from attorneys.

How did you get the ATV folks on board?
The problem was that we spent the money to build the visitors center; so now where do you get the money to buy Bayhorse? The mining company had a change of attitude. They said we’re not just going to sell you the town site; we’ll sell you all our property, all 570 acres. That’s a different answer than 80 acres of just the town site.  I knew I had an asset I could take to the motorized crowd.

We have a lot of money in the ATV motorbike fund that comes from them buying off-road stickers. Why don’t we go talk to them, because there’s a fantastic trail system here, and I learned about that system just by riding around exploring.

They thought it was a great idea. And so we had approval to use their money to buy the state park, and to make it an historic site as well as a motorized recreation site. And so it made a nice marriage.

Yankee Fork gold dredge in original pond
Yankee Fork gold dredge in original pond

Why was it important to preserve Bayhorse?
I’m a world traveler. I look for ghost towns, and I’ve photographed over 130 ghost towns in Idaho but I’ve also photographed in Cambodia and Machu Picchu in Peru, so these are ghost towns to me.  The thing you have to remember is our built environment in the state of Idaho is very new. We weren’t in any built environment until the miners and the prospectors came, and they were building to supplement their gold rush of the 1860s and 1870s, so prior to that there were no buildings.

What we’re saving now is our Acropolis. We’re saving our coliseum, and we’re saving our temples right here. This is our history. They might look old and dilapidated and falling down, but that’s part of the mystique, and that’s part of the charm. And that’s why they are valuable; that’s why we had to save something, a town somewhere in the state from that period and era, and Bayhorse is the perfect place.

Not only does it have the history, but it has fantastic scenery. As you drive up here to visit Bayhorse, you’re greeted with national park quality landscapes. You don’t get that at every park. I maintain this is one of the most beautiful parks we have in the entire state park system of 30 parks. This is a fantastic site, let alone the history and the story that goes with it. And the back story is what makes the whole thing really work, so that’s why Bayhorse.

What do you see on the ATV trails at this park?
Bayhorse isn’t just the town itself; it’s the mines up on the mountains; there are mill structures and there are tramways, and so you see how the mining actually took place, from the 1800s to the turn of the century. These are spectacular sorts of construction and as an architect, I look at those structures today, and I’m impressed with how innovative and creative those early pioneers were with some of the things they were able to build.

So when you take your ride and you go up and visit all these upper structures, it’s a whole experience. And you can come here and spend two weekends, and a week here in this area, because we’ve got Custer and Bonanza and other sites now, as well as Bayhorse, and the scenery is all spectacular

You can get up on top of Ram’s Horn Mountain and you’ve got a 360 degree view of Idaho, and you can see clear over into the Sawtooths; you can see over into the Pioneers; you can see up into the Lochsa; you can see all over the state. You can see 100 miles or more in every direction. And the sky is clear enough that you can actually see that far, and the scenery is quite an awesome view.

Do you have a feeling of accomplishment when you come back here?
Actually, I’m quite amazed because originally, when I proposed saving Bayhorse, it was an 80 acre town site, and I thought we’d be lucky to have that. But working together in a partnership --  which is an important thing, and that’s one of the reasons I got that Partners in Conservation award from the Secretary of the Interior a few years ago – it was bringing together all the players to the table with a shared vision how to save a historic site, and how to use it and not abuse it, and protect it, and allow people to come and enjoy it.

It still gets me teared up to think about it, because it’s a lot of hard work, and never giving up can pay off if you just keep at it, and you really believe in what you’re doing. I was never paid a dime for any of this. It wasn’t like it was compensation. It was only because I felt a real need to do that, and I have to admit I grew up on a ranch that had a ghost town close by, and I had my own saloon, and I had my own livery stable, and I had my own grocery store and my own hotel. It was like a mile from the house; and I could go there any day and play there, and I did. I became in love with these things at a very young age, so that became a lifelong thing; and as you know, I spent a lot of years photographing ghost towns in Idaho, and that’s like 30,000 images of historic buildings. I felt for a while I can save it on film; but I had this feeling I have to save the real thing, at least some place. I have to work toward that – and if I can’t save the real thing somewhere, I just haven’t gotten it done quite right. Looking around here, and realizing I really did save the real thing, it gets me all choked up.

Old building at Bayhorse [Courtesy Chuck Cathcart]
Old building at Bayhorse [Courtesy Chuck Cathcart]

In general, what’s the value of state parks?
We are part of the natural environment. It’s good for the heart and soul to be out and get exercise and experience. One of the best places is, of course, parks, because parks are hopefully saving some of the best of the best.

It’s a regeneration of the heart and soul, and a regeneration of your inner self. And they’re almost a spiritual thing in a lot of ways; so parks are very much a part of the human environment and the human condition, and without them it would be a great loss.

What’s the difference between state parks and other parks, like city and national parks?
They’re really quite different. The state parks really are out in the natural environment itself. There’s the ability to be at a place like Bayhorse or a lake or a mountain stream. They have that unique ability as a state system, to go to those places, similar to a national system. The state system is more important because it’s close to where people live. It’s close to where they recreate, and so they’re able to do it on a weekend; they’re able to do it after work. And those are the things that state parks give you.  So they’re much more important for the average person than the other system, the national system.

What about the idea of state parks being self-sufficient?
When I first got on the state park board, parks were about 30% self funded and about 60-70% funded by the state legislature. One of the reasons you have board members from the business side of the world is they maybe have a long vision of where politics and the world is going. I could see funding being reduced for parks; as an architect, I’m designing buildings for criminal justice systems and other kinds of systems that are eating a lot of state budgets.

I could see their budget going away, and so I strongly encouraged, and we worked on a lot of ways as a board and as a staff to come more self-sufficient. I’m glad we did, because when the big crunch came a few years ago, and a lot of state parks around the United States were closing because of lack of funding, Idaho did not have to do that because we had made some changes internally.

The concept was that users have to pay, and to a certain extent that’s true. But the fees are nominal, and the users seem very happy to step up to the plate and do that; and a lot of things we do have are free, but some things we do have to charge for. Right now, 98% of state parks funding is self-generating, not legislative.

Talk about the changes you saw in your almost 18 years on the Parks Board.
Before, state parks were a little bit like, we’re here to protect this resource, but not necessarily be so open to the public. I really felt that if it was going to survive, they had to have the public be part of the system, and it’s not just saving it for savings sake. It’s saving it so you can use it, not abuse, and you can come to love it. And that’s a little bit different attitude, and that took a shift in personnel’s attitude, as well, and how they viewed their job. So they realized if they were going to survive long term, that they had to be part of the economics of it as well as the story of it.

So it’s really hard to combine some of those things; and some could adjust, and some couldn’t; and the ones that couldn’t aren’t part of the system anymore.

What does the future look like for state parks?
The future is bright for state parks. I think hopefully, the people who aren’t avid users of our state parks will become avid users. I’m very optimistic that people will do that. The things that are offered within the system are just too compelling to not become even more loved in the future.

I think funding is non-existent; and I’m okay with that, and we’re realistic about that; but you’ve got to make it work, however you make it work, and they are making it work. We’ve got some good leadership there, and some good board members there, and a great staff, and they work hard, and they all love it, and that’s why it keeps on going.