Surprise! Boise votes for open space

Support for tax levy breaks an Idaho tradition


Rancher Brad Little has been grazing sheep for over 20 years on property that stretches through the foothills east of Boise, Idaho, all the way down to the city's limits. But Boise has grown from a small state capital into a booming metro area. Now, Little's sheep and ranch hands mingle with the almost 100,000 hikers, mountain bikers, birdwatchers and hunters who recreate on the mix of public and private land that make up the foothills.

The increased traffic makes for interesting confrontations. Little's gotten used to retrieving his sheep and working dogs after they follow hikers down into town. Once, an old ewe wandered down into the city hospital's parking lot.

"The humane society called up and wanted to charge us 30 bucks to get that old ewe out of jail," says Little. "We said the sheep isn't even worth $30, so you can have it."

Little, an HCN board member and newly appointed Republican state senator, isn't the only one dealing with change in Boise. Last year's census marked Boise as the fourth fastest-growing metro area in the nation. High-tech companies such as Hewlett Packard and Micron have spurred the growth of Boise and its surroundings from a population of 278,000 in 1990 to over 400,000 today. The downside is a familiar story in cities all over the West. Boise residents are watching as traffic and sprawl pour in and their quality of life is squeezed out.

In Idaho, a state where politicians joke about the lack of Democrats, dealing with the sprawl has run head on into conservative politics. The traditional models of buying up open space, creating growth boundaries or committing to regional planning don't always fit the Idaho paradigm.

But on May 22, Boise residents did something unprecedented: They voted to tax themselves $10 million over the next two years in order to preserve public open space and stave off housing developments in the foothills' popular recreation areas.

Unlikely alliances

For Boise residents, the 100,000-acre foothills are a way to escape the city's increasing congestion. But private ownership could limit access to much of the foothills' public land, says Suki Molina, the Idaho Conservation League's associate director. That fact alone, she says, made citizens interested in an open-space levy.

A local poll commissioned by the Boise Idaho Statesman and a local TV station found the initiative was too close to call, four days before the election. But the final tally surprised everyone: Almost 60 percent of the city voted in favor of the open-space levy.

"It was an incredible community effort, and very uplifting," says Lauren McLean, organizer for the Boise Foothills Open Space campaign.

What galvanized so many voters, proponents say, was an unlikely alliance between Idaho environmentalists and Boise's Republican leadership. Mayor H. Brent Coles, a moderate Republican and a city planner by trade, spearheaded the push to buy public-access easements and certain private parcels in the foothills nearest to the city. Volunteers from the Idaho Conservation League and neighborhood groups went door-to-door selling the idea.

"(Coles) held out the cherry branch and we grabbed on to the end," says Molina. "I think the passion that people feel for the foothills here is extremely big, and I think we helped ignite that."

A case in point is Vern Bisterfeldt, a retired Boise police officer and a former Republican county commissioner. Bisterfeldt was opposed to the levy at first, but two things helped change his mind * a recent wave of homebuilding in the foothills, and the fact that passing the levy was such a bipartisan and grassroots effort.

"I've never really been known as an enthusiast as far as environmentalism goes," he says. "(But) I think a lot of people thought it was the right thing to do at the right price."

Bisterfeldt also thinks Boise still has a chance to avoid the degree of congestion and sprawl that plagues bigger Western cities, such as Denver and Seattle.

"We've heard of a lot of places in Colorado and California that have grown too fast and messed some things up," he says. "And a lot of people have moved here from those places. I think they bought that idea ... that the trails and animal habitat and the ridges to the river, were worth protecting and keeping there for ... our grandkids to see."

Open-space initiatives popular

Still, over 40 percent of Boisians voted against the levy, which will cost a $100,000-homeowner around $60 over the two years.

Former state Senator Rod Beck, who headed a group called Citizens Against the Foothills Follies, joined some developers and the city's Chamber of Commerce in opposing the levy. Beck's reasoning reflects a strong distaste in Boise for taxation and more government-owned property.

"It just seemed like an open-ended government tax expenditure," Beck says. "And then ... there are some of us who believe that there should be no net gain in government property."

But Lauren McLean of the Save the Foothills campaign says the margin of victory shows how a fear of sprawl in Boise is overwhelming a distaste for taxation. In that respect, Boise isn't alone. Though many cities, such as Missoula, Mont., and Portland, Ore., had to go to voters two or three times before passing similar open-space initiatives, more open-space levies are passing than failing in the West. According to the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, close to two-thirds of 68 open-space measures passed in the West last year.

Despite the high batting average, most planning advocates recognize that open-space protection doesn't solve major growing pains, such as traffic and loss of farmland.

"Transportation is the issue that most people are concerned about," says Jon Barrett, co-director of the Boise-based group Idaho Smart Growth. "So often you hear people say, 'We need a real workable public transportation system.' "

Dealing with problems like congestion is going to take a different kind of initiative, and Western voters haven't approved of broad growth-management measures. The Brookings Institution reports that less than half of 52 growth-management measures passed in the West last year.

For now, the city of Boise has its hands full just dealing with open space. About 5,500 acres have been targeted for preservation, but city officials still don't know exactly which land they will try to buy. They've formed a committee to negotiate deals with foothills landowners, but they may not encounter willing sellers. Brad Little says he's been thinking about how to sell or develop some of his 1,200 foothills acres for a while, and he doesn't know how much he's willing to sell to the city.

"My druthers would be to not sell to the government," he says. But the levy's landslide victory makes him more optimistic. "I think that their expectations are overblown," he says of the levy supporters. "But they worked like heck, they were very well-organized, and they had passion."

Ali Macalady is production assistant for Radio High Country News.


  • Suki Molina, Idaho Conservation League, 208/345-6942;
  • Boise Mayor H. Brent Coles, 208/384-4422;
  • Jon Barrett, Idaho Smart Growth, 208/333-8066,
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