Community October 6, 2010

Walking the Wild River

There is a spot a little north of Hailey where the Big Wood River tends to divide in the fall, leaving a bar of sand and gravel and a few larger rocks. On a clear, warm day in early October, when the cottonwoods and aspens are brightly lit and the river is readily traversable, this island becomes an idyllic setting for one or two to spend several hours of undisturbed ease, picnicking and maybe doing some fishing, reading or painting, or just lying in midstream seclusion with nothing more than the shifting rays of light for diversion.

The Big Wood River can produce many such enchantments. For every mood and occasion there is a bend and a ripple. More elementally, the river is a source of physical nourishment for a wide variety of wildlife species, and the primary source of the Valley’s agricultural vitality. And, as real estate prices attest, it is also the source of considerable covetousness. Along with and perhaps even more than the mountains, the river is what defines our area, unites its diversities, and acts as a focal point for our community. Psychologically, if not by deed, each of us owns a piece of it.

Given its powerful appeal and real value, the Big Wood River understandably receives a good bit of attention. Of greatest interest are its health and accessibility. Certain aspects of the river’s condition are directly influenced by population growth and human activities, such as septic leaching, chemical drainage, and ill-considered riprapping, but much of its general well-being is determined by natural (sometimes global) forces and is thus beyond our local control. Access, on the other hand, can be largely regulated by our actions and choices. These choices can have a demonstrable effect on our lives and on populations of local wildlife.

In appreciation of the river’s importance and in response to continuing development pressures, the Wood River Land Trust has initiated the Big Wood River Greenway Project. Evolving from the Trust’s failed attempt in 1998 to secure for the city of Hailey federal funds to protect local flood lands, the Project is intended to establish a continuous chain of protected land along the Big Wood River as it flows through the Wood River Valley. Scott Boettger, Executive Director of the Land Trust, realized when FEMA denied the 1998 request based on value-ratio criteria that a larger, valley-wide, collaborative effort would be necessary in order to keep the river from changing irreparably in character. Working with public and private entities, the Land Trust is hoping to piece together by means of conservation easements and outright land acquisitions a sixty-five-mile swath of cottonwood stands and riparian habitat.

One of the Project’s goals is to ensure public access points along the river. “Strolling the banks of the Big Wood River is a terrific way to savor life here in the valley. An ultimate goal of the Greenway Project is to guarantee places along the river where people can take in its natural splendor,” points out Dan Gilmore of the Land Trust. Substantial sections of river frontage are already on developed lands and are consequently unlikely as sites for public corridors. In the early stages, therefore, the Land Trust is targeting available acreage for purchase, in particular land convenient to the more densely populated areas. Currently it is working with the cities of Hailey and Bellevue to acquire and set aside riverside properties within their municipalities. A recently completed transaction in Hailey serves as a good model for how the pieces can be put together.

The process started when the city of Hailey and the Wood River Land Trust joined forces in 2002 to restore two sections of riverside at the western edge of the city. On the north end was Lions Park, which had been used for years as a fill area that eventually created an abnormally high, scrofulous bank. A mile-and-a-half downstream, abutting Heagle Park, was the decommissioned Riverside Treatment Plant. Restoration of the two areas to more natural states would bring both visual and environmental relief to Hailey’s west side.

With the first two priorities thus identified and with grant money from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, the Hailey Greenbelt Project was born. The Lions Park undertaking included tapering back the bank, re-vegetating it, and setting ledges in the river to break up the current and improve fish habitat. At the old sewage treatment facility, plans were made for a one-acre seasonal pond and surrounding natural wetlands that would lead to a fluent extension of the existing park. This project within a project also envisioned an expansion of the protected areas between the two parks.

The land immediately south of Lions Park is owned by the state. Southeast from the state land is the Wood River Land Trust Cedar Bend Preserve, a 2.2-acre parcel previously donated to the Land Trust. Adjacent to Cedar Bend and running farther south was one of the last undeveloped properties along that stretch of river. If that property could be obtained, then with the exception of two developed lots, the first one-and-a-half miles of Greenway would be a reality. To accomplish this, the Land Trust secured an option on the land and went about raising enough money to meet the negotiated, below-market price and to start a stewardship endowment that would help offset annual maintenance expenses. When the deal closed this past March, Cedar Bend Preserve was doubled in size and the first important piece of the Big Wood River Greenway Project was in place.

Meanwhile, the city of Bellevue has also taken up the challenge. In partnership with the Land Trust, the city has formed the Bellevue Riverfront Protection Project, and together they are in the process of obtaining the largest undeveloped riverfront site in Bellevue. Again, the Land Trust has secured an option on the property and has worked with the owners to arrive at a dramatically reduced purchase price. The roughly 12.5-acre parcel, owned by the John B. Howard family, is just off Main Street and extends all the way to the river. It is a critical link in the Greenway Project, as it is prime development land that also happens to sit next to five acres of city-owned land and be connected by existing public-access easements to several other public or protected properties.

The Land Trust and the Bellevue citizens’ group have until the end of 2003 to raise $275,000 for the purchase price and corresponding endowment fund. The Hailey Rotary Club has already donated start-up money, and the Company of Fools theatre group (also located in Hailey) has offered a special performance of The Tempest to benefit the project. These neighborly gestures manifest a community awareness of the importance of each smaller piece, no matter where, to the larger purpose.

For the Big Wood River Greenway Project to be fully successful, many more collaborations and continuing displays of civic interest and generosity will be needed. “It will take a community-wide effort to make the Greenway Project a reality. The Land Trust can leverage the intent and contributions of people supporting the Project. We can do far more together than any one of us can do alone,” Gilmore adds. “There is a role for everyone to play.” The Land Trust has a head start, with the top 22 miles of the river on Forest Service property and permanently preserved, and another 150 riverfront acres under the protection of other conservation groups. In addition, the Land Trust itself currently owns 11 acres and has negotiated conservation easements on an additional 101 acres. That still leaves miles of unprotected, inaccessible riverside, however, and the undeveloped land is scarce and expensive, while the developed lots are often encumbered with privacy issues. Yet, as the cities and citizens of Hailey and Bellevue have shown, people often can see the big picture. With proper guidance, that picture can be more widely embraced, and one or two examples can become many. This is the hope of the Wood River Land Trust—and it should be ours, as well.




This article appears in the Summer 2003 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.