It might not have been apparent when the Boise Foothills were used as a military bombing range in the 1940s that the rolling, grassy terrain would one day be an asset to Idaho’s capital city.
But over the course of 40 years of land management and restoration, the foothills have become a significant part of why people move to the city, said Ridge to Rivers program coordinator David Gordon.
“It’s become a real driver of Boise’s economy,” Gordon said. “We have people that come to Boise. One of the reasons they’ll come is to use the trail system. A lot of people you’ll talk to will move to Boise because of the trail system.”
Most of the trails, which traverse 85,000 acres, are non-motorized and used by runners, hikers and mountain bikers.
Gordon spoke Wednesday to attendees of a Charleston Area Alliance “Think Tank” lunch about the 150-mile trail system and answered questions on how Charleston might create its own.
Charleston’s Neighborwoods committee has a goal to create a 100-mile trail system in and around the city, Alliance community development director Susie Salisbury said.
“It’s a lofty goal, but we are kind of starting to chip away at that piece by piece,” Salisbury said.
Neighborwoods member Bill Mills, whose daughter lives in Boise, said he is impressed by the trail system and described it as “remarkable.” Mills invited Gordon to speak in Charleston.
Gordon said collaboration was key to the success and sustainability of the 150-mile trail system. Trails run over municipal, federal and privately owned land and Partners in the Ridge to Rivers system include Ada County, the City of Boise, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Boise National Forest, Idaho Fish and Game, as well as some private landowners.
“Without a cooperative partnership, there’s no way we could provide a seamless trail system and seamless management for wildlife corridors, for natural resource values that we do,” Gordon said.
There are inter-agency agreements with the city, which helps with funding the program, Gordon said. Those agreements not only fund maintenance practices, but also allow Ridge to Rivers staff to work within multiple jurisdictions.
The effort to build and maintain the system was a grassroots one, Gordon said. Much of the initial legwork started with local recreationists who wanted to improve what already existed. Then conservation groups got on board and, eventually, groups were able to campaign for the Foothills Serial Levy — a two-year property tax that raised $10 million for the program.
There was opposition, however, from the city’s Chamber of Commerce, which didn’t support the levy.
“They felt like adding another tax would dissuade people from moving to Boise,” Gordon said. “If you talk to those same people now, they’ll tell you with a smile on their face it was the biggest mistake they’ve ever made.”
The Chamber now uses the trail system in its marketing materials, Gordon said.
While only a few studies have been done on the system’s impact, a 2012 economic benefits study showed major positive impacts. The area’s ecosystem services — “what the land does for you naturally,” Gordon explained — were valued at $8.9 million. The direct value, or revenues if there was a user fee for every day the trail was in use, was estimated at $2.3 million. Health-care savings from providing more fitness opportunities for the community were valued at $390,000.
Outside Magazine last week ranked Boise as one of the best cities for active families, Gordon said.
“You start developing a system like this — an open space system and a trail system — and you start attracting a lot of attention, and a lot of positive attention,” Gordon said.
He also spoke of economic growth in the city, specifically a mountain bike shop that sells three times the national average.
“In the last seven years, his sale, labor and repairs have increased 40 percent, or $200,000,” Gordon said.
An integral component of creating such a vast system can be the buy-in — getting people interested in and committed to the project — Gordon said. But one audience member said that is Charleston’s greatest challenge.
“Identifying those key players in terms of the groups and agencies, and then identifying representatives and having them start to work as a committee toward your goal [is key],” Gordon said.
Reach Rachel Molenda at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5102.