Foothills Open Space and Boise River Levy: Something Old, Something New 

A revised expansion of the foothills levy

"Fifteen years ago, I was fighting for the levy to pass. This year, I got to vote to put a new one on the ballot. It never occurred to me my life would end up like this."

Kelsey Hawes

"Fifteen years ago, I was fighting for the levy to pass. This year, I got to vote to put a new one on the ballot. It never occurred to me my life would end up like this."

Running through the trails of the foothills for the first time, Lauren McLean knew Boise was where her family needed to be. Her husband interviewed for a job at Micron and they relocated from upstate New York to Boise in 1998.

Only a handful of years later, McLean got the opportunity to protect the very foothills that drew her to Boise. She became campaign manager for the first-ever foothills levy in 2001, which set aside $10 million for acquisition of land in the foothills between Highway 55 and Highway 21 to save it from development.

"In 2001, we had to convince voters that our foothills were important," said McLean, who now serves on the Boise City Council. "It was so new, so different, and really required a lot of hard work to talk voter-to-voter and convince people this was the right thing to do. We were surprised it passed, and with such success."

Much has changed in McLean's life since passage of the first levy. Her daughter isn't in diapers anymore—rather, she's an avid foothills user herself. McLean was appointed to the City Council five years ago and is running unopposed for election Tuesday, Nov. 3—the same day voters will be asked to weigh in on a second foothills levy.

"Fifteen years ago, I was fighting for the levy to pass," she said. "This year, I got to vote to put a new one on the ballot. It never occurred to me my life would end up like this."

The new levy being put before Boise voters calls for another $10 million earmarked for land acquisition, but it goes beyond real estate and beyond the foothills.

This time, the levy is geared toward "clean water and open space," including restoration work along the Boise River and land purchases outside the foothills.

"We understand better what open space measures look like in today's world versus what they looked like in Boise in 2001," McLean said. "In 2001, we were leaders in that sense, doing something remarkable. As a city, I think there's a desire to lead again, to do something in a new way that reflects today's values and needs. ... Open space can come in a lot of forms and our river is a jewel. Our clean water is unique."

The first foothills levy passed with 59 percent, despite opposition from no less than the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce.

"They have since apologized and now they're one of the biggest supporters," City Council President Maryanne Jordan said Oct. 14 at a panel on the new levy.

A dozen people turned out for the panel at the Foothills Learning Center, part of its Sunset Series program, where Jordan was joined by representatives from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service and Ridge to Rivers to assess the impacts of the original levy and describe the new proposal.

They all agreed: money is tight.

For David Gordon, program manager for Ridge to Rivers, the foothills levy helped buy up pieces of land that led to more trail connectivity.

"It adds to our quality of life. Without it, Boise would be a different place," he said.

As the city has grown, so has trail use, leading to challenges in managing the foothills. Trails erode the soil, noxious weeds spread and the threat of wildfire grows.

"Our budget isn't reflecting the increasing use," said Stephaney Church, a district ranger for the Boise National Forest. "Noxious weeds lead to more wildfires and increased use is helping that happen. It's challenging to keep up."

"I second that," said Krista Mueller, habitat manager for IDFG. "The increase of development means loss of habitat. This partnership is encouraging. ... If the second levy passes, we can coordinate with the city to create conservation easements that we'll administrate, but the city will put the funds down."

McLean said there are no projects on the drawing board yet but, should it pass, a citizen oversight committee will be created to help work with experts and design restoration projects and increased river access.

If approved, the two-year override levy will raise $5 million each year through an estimated monthly cost to homeowners of $2.39 per $100,000 of taxable home value.

Kate Thorpe, deputy director of the Conservation Voters for Idaho, said the challenge to this year's levy is getting voters to turn out.

"The biggest threat is people saying, 'Of course that should happen,' then not voting," she said. "We have the support numbers. We just have to get people to turn out at the polls."

McLean agrees. If people will vote, the levy will pass.

"When people vote in Boise, they vote 'yes' to open space," she said.

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