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A Mountain Out of a Foothill, Part Two

Hammer Flat could be sold by Christmas

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Christmas can't come soon enough for Virgil Moore. The director of Idaho's Department of Fish and Game knows exactly what he wants in his stocking--a deed to a 700-acre plateau, better known as Hammer Flat.

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter may become Moore's personal Santa because, if both men have their way, a deal to sell Hammer Flat to Fish and Game could be gift-wrapped as early as Tuesday, Dec. 20.

But more than a few citizens want to put off Moore's Christmas wish at least until March and maybe indefinitely. They're wondering why there's such a holiday rush to complete a proposed $4.2 million sale, especially when they were repeatedly told to be patient when considering the pristine land parcel, which for generations was shared by wildlife and recreationists.

For decades, Idahoans hiked up to the plateau near Lucky Peak Reservoir east of Boise to walk, run, cycle and even fly over the seasonal habitat for deer, elk and antelope. In March 2010, when the City of Boise announced its purchase of Hammer Flat, the deal was championed as a perfect use of $4.1 million in Foothills serial levy funds.

A year later, city officials announced that a "baseline survey" would be conducted for a full 12 months, asking citizens to stay clear of the area while wildlife experts performed a scientific survey of the land. Be patient, everyone was told, until March 2012, when the study would be complete.

But patience was not on the Nov. 10 agenda of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission, which voted to race forward with a purchase of the land from Boise for $4.23 million, using Bonneville Power Administration mitigation money (BW, News, "A Mountain Out of a Foothill,"Nov. 16, 2011). Within days, Bieter and Moore scheduled a public information meeting (boiseweekly.com, Citydesk, "Hammer Flat Meeting Divides Attendees," Dec. 1, 2011), promoting the plan with hopes of putting a bow on the deal before Christmas.

Given that the city currently owns Hammer Flat, the Boise City Council will have the final say on any sale, and more than one member is wondering what the hurry is all about.

"We're rushing everything," said Council Member TJ Thomson. "There is definitely a risk in making hasty decisions."

Thomson wants to wait until March at the very least.

"What deeply troubles me is moving ahead prior to this study," said Thomson. "We're only four months away, and I don't see any major problem in waiting for the results so we can make a better judgment call."

Council Member Elaine Clegg echoed her colleague's concerns.

"I'm frankly troubled by what I've been reading in the news that Fish and Game officials already think they know how they will manage Hammer Flat without waiting for the assessment," said Clegg. "That troubles me a lot."

In fact, Fish and Game biologist Ed Bottum commented to paraglider pilots that they would "never have access to the land again." What troubled the glider community the most was that Bottum made the comment in early 2010.

"Ed's statement that Fish and Game wouldn't allow aircraft, end of story, and they wouldn't even consider it, seems like an awfully short-sighted and frankly disappointingly narrow point of view," said Clegg. "It seems to me that some value could be placed on paragliding, and some kind of exception could be made for that particular type of aircraft at one particular site. They certainly do it for other recreational activities like snowmobiling and ATVs. They seem to be as destructive, if not more so, as paragliding might be."

Thomson said he only recently had learned what a unique location Hammer Flat had become to the paraglider community.

"This is Boise, a recreational city with skiing, hiking, fishing and our new river park," said Thomson. "All of a sudden, we want to make a decision that would, once and for all, eliminate paragliding forever? Maybe there's a conversation to be had where we could keep a portion of the land for some recreation use and the rest was sold."

At the Nov. 20 public meeting, Moore began to back-pedal, at least a bit, on Bottum's earlier remarks.

"While that comment was accurate, it doesn't necessarily predict the future," said Moore. "Fish and Game is part of this city. Our rules don't say that as we move through the process, [gliding] won't be allowed."

"The process," according to Moore, would include a review of the baseline study, but only after the deal would be sealed, putting the land permanently in control of Fish and Game.

"It appears to me that if [Fish and Game] has completely made up its mind in advance on this issue, that will sway my vote one way," said Clegg. "If it appears that they still acknowledge that the baseline study and public comments are truly important to them, that will sway me the other way."

But Clegg and her fellow council members may have to vote on the sale sooner than later.

"As I see it, we're in the driver seat," said Thomson. "I think they drastically want this property. I would like us to put this on hold and see the study in March. If they can't wait that long, then let's have the full debate right now and decide whether we should end paragliding in the city of Boise and not be coy about it. Time is short."

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