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The Planet

Boise Foothills Rise to the Challenge With Voters' Help

By Kim Todd

The Boise foothill levy seemed like a hard sell.

Shouldering Responsibility for the Boise foothillsIt was a tax in an avowedly anti-tax state. It was a conservation measure in a city with a Republican mayor. It proposed stemming sprawl in one of the fastest growing areas in the country. But despite all omens, the levy passed on May 22 with 59 percent of the vote. The citizens pulled together in a strong grassroots effort. Mayor Brent Coles lent his vocal support. Even the foothills helped: As voters went to the polls, wildflowers were out in full bloom, arrowleaf balsamroot and rabbitbrush covering the slopes.

The two-year, $10 million property tax provides funds to purchase up to 5,500 acres of foothills land, secure rights of way for hikers and mountain bikers and buy conservation easements to protect land from development.

With high technology jobs and miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, Boise is booming and the hills on the edge of town have been disappearing under a wave of development. While the measure won't halt all building, Sierra Club regional representative Roger Singer said it will go a long way.

"From a sprawl campaign point of view it's significant because it shows that the folks of this city are aware of the natural limits to growth. Even if some development shows up on the foothills, at least we'll have these corridors for wildlife and recreation," he said. The area provides winter forage for mule deer and serves as an important pathway for migrating birds.

Creative campaigning was key. In early April, activists held a benefit concert featuring Walkin' Jim Stoltz, a folk singer whose lyrics emphasize wildlands. On Earth Day, instead of setting up their usual booth downtown, organizers held a work party. More than 150 supporters fanned out over the foothills to improve trails, collect trash and yank invasive weeds.

Led by husband and wife team Scott Larson and Amy Hutchinson, chairs of the Middle Snake Group and sprawl committee, respectively, volunteers doggedly followed up on the success of the concert and Earth Day festivities. They went door to door, manned phone banks and sent out e-mails to get voters to the polls. In the final weeks they stepped up their efforts in the face of a publicity blitz by the opposition - "Citizens Against Foothill Follies."

On election night, volunteers joined the mayor at the Boise Depot, a restored railroad station with a view of the foothills, to watch the returns come in, a tense gathering that eventually turned into a celebration.

Though the hills are pretty on a victorious spring night through the Depot windows, Larson likes them best in the winter when he and Hutchinson might come across a herd of mule deer or elk, foraging in the snow. Or a coyote might send up a howl, luring their dog to join in. This year, as the snow starts to fall, he can enjoy the chill beauty and a certain sense of relief.

"We'd just had months and months of bad news with Bush and all that; it was nice to have some good news, finally," Larson said.

Photo courtesy Tom Von Alten

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