Brian Ellsworth 

Brian Ellsworth, 48, presents a bit of a paradox. The Boise native helped found the construction firm Ellsworth-Kincaid, which has had more than a T-square's worth of influence in spaces from the former MilkyWay restaurant to the Boise Towne Square Mall.

But this developer is no stranger to conservation, either. He campaigned heavily for the Boise Foothills Initiative, earning an appointment to the city's Planning and Zoning Commission. His newest cause is designation of the Boulder-White Cloud mountains as wilderness, for which he was recently named "wilderness hero" by the Campaign for America's Wilderness and the Wilderness Society.

Ellsworth sat down with BW over a couple of Italian sodas to talk about challenges to the wilderness bill, his wish list for growth in Boise, and why we should make legislators live in Caldwell.

How you feel about being called a wilderness hero?

Well, it's a little humbling to ever be called a hero. There are a lot of people that do a lot more stuff than I've done. I've gone back and campaigned for Boulder-White Clouds a couple times, and I got involved in the Boise Foothills campaign, when the City of Boise raised $10 million. I guess that got me involved in some of these other things just because it made me realize how important it was to get involved, that you could make a difference, and that it was kind of fun and exciting to protect something that I've cherished all my adult life, and most of my life as a kid, too.

Was that the first time you felt like the foothills were threatened?

When I was growing up, I never really looked at them as threatened even though there was probably a lot more degradation and abuse in the foothills. Back when I was growing up, there were a lot more people driving around. When we were kids in high school, we drove around and had keggers up there. We were not good stewards of the land. People are much better now.

Why has the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness designation been in limbo for so long?

I think there was a Senator that probably tried to put together a bill before Mike Simpson. Mike’s just championed it. He’s got a good bill together where everybody has had to give a little, and he’s got a consensus. That’s the way I think things need to be done at least as far as wilderness protection goes in the state of Idaho. I’m not sure that was so true when Frank Church put together the Frank Church wilderness area. It’s just interesting to me that there hasn’t been any wilderness designation in Idaho since the Frank Church wilderness was done in the early 80s.

Do you have a favorite place in the White Clouds?

Up in the east fork of the Salmon River, there are some beautiful drainages. It's not just important to the people of Idaho, it's important to the people of this country. It's not about me; it's about protecting it for future uses. As more and more people come to the state and are competing for that same experience out there, whether they are a mountain biker or a backpacker or a fisherman or a snowmobiler or an ATVer or horsepackers, all these people are competing on the same trails. It becomes more important to find those key areas that maybe the highest and best use is protecting it as wilderness. And I just happen to think that is the highest and best use for the Boulder-White Clouds.

Is motorized use a threat to wilderness?

Absolutely. That's changed the whole game. It's made getting into the wilderness a lot easier; you don't have to be as fit as you would if you rode a bike or even a horse or walked. I don't want to be too critical of the ATVs, because what we really want is to educate those people and have them on our side and have them protect the trails. I think a lot of them are respectful of the land. It's just [a few] bad apples.

When will we find out about the wilderness bill?

The bill should get out of committee and we’re hoping it will get a hearing some time this summer. The Democrats wanted a few changes and Simpson accommodated them. The changes had to do with the land exchanges. They were going to take federal land and give the land to the counties so the counties could sell it outright to private developers and put money in their coffers as part of their agreeing to this whole thing. The Democrats didn’t like that. They’d rather see the townees just be paid and not get the land. They didn’t want to set that precedent, and I think that’s probably a good idea.

How can Boise grow sustainably?

Planning takes years to get everybody to sign on. Developers are out there speculating, buying land and doing deals. It drives the economy, but those deals are all happening faster than the planning. So in a way, this economic downturn lets us take a deep breath and let the planning catch up with the growth. Boise's going to grow. People will continue to be attracted to this place for the economy and the quality of life. Yet the more people that move here, the harder it is to protect that quality of life, because we have huge problems with air pollution, and we can't seem to get our act together with transportation, which is frustrating because that would solve some of the air pollution problems.

What do you think of Avimor?

Avimor and Hidden Springs both frustrate me, and they're both Orwellian. Avimor markets its clean air; well, whose clean air? It's not my clean air. Most people drive down and shop at Albertson's or Costco. Let's not kid ourselves. Avimor and Hidden Springs spread everything out. They are, in my view, part of the urban sprawl problem. You don't want cities that just pop up haphazardly throughout the county. It's our infrastructure that's impacted. They're going to drive down State Street. They're going to be bused into Meridian School District every single day. That causes air pollution. If they had a movie theater out there in Avimor, then you'd get some trip capture because they'd be able to see the movie out there. Those types of developments need to be looked at very carefully, and we need to decide as the citizens in these two counties if that's the type of growth we want to see. We shouldn't let somebody from Phoenix or Las Vegas make that decision for us just because they have a hell of a lot of money. Avimor is a good development; it's just in the wrong place. It's noncontiguous.

Where do you live?

I live in the Foothills. It's an old, developed neighborhood that's been there since the 1950s. I bought an old house and remodeled, which is sustainable, I guess.

What's your vision for Boise?

I think the Boise whitewater park is big. I think it will be an economic engine that will revitalize that 30th Street corridor, which has never been fully utilized. It will give us a chance to put denser housing down there that may be more affordable than what's downtown. Certainly some sort of alternative transportation, preferably a train. Like the mayor said, people don't write songs about buses, they write songs about trains. Look at the success of that in Denver, in Salt Lake. Salt Lake is very conservative when it comes to taxing themselves, and yet all the outlying areas around Salt Lake want a rail because it's been successful. If the state Legislature would allow us, the citizens, to make those kinds of choices locally, we'd be a lot better off than having somebody in the legislature tell me what I should do for transportation. We ought to sequester the entire Legislature for the next Legislative session in Caldwell so that they have to drive in and see the problem firsthand, instead of staying in the hotels downtown and never seeing the problem, and then walking into their committee meeting and deciding that the citizens here don't know what they're talking about and that they don't have the right to tax themselves for any kind of alternative transportation. Our voices need to be heard, and they're not being heard right now.

Zoning is not a popular word out West.

It is with me. I think if you ask most people they don’t like what they see in a place like Boise County. The reason is because Boise County doesn’t have a lot of strict zoning laws, meaning that you can build a trailer park next to a log home next to a golf course next to a restaurant. Zoning protects everybody. Zoning means we’re thinking about it and we’re doing some planning. I think there are a lot of developers that are good land planners. Some of the best developers I know have degrees in land planning. They’re leading this good cause in a lot of ways because they want to make sure that they have the right mixture of uses and that everything is working and they have transportation in and out and connectivity. They’re in the business of making a profit, and they’re going to make more of a profit if they get it right rather than wrong.

Have you ever rejected a project in favor of the environment?

For the most part, we don't really look at it that way. Am I torn between being a builder and developer and then having this environmental conscience? Maybe a little bit.

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