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A Mountain Out of a Foothill

Fish and Game covets Hammer Flat

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There's little disagreement on the beauty and importance of Hammer Flat, the 700-acre plateau that each winter beckons antelope, deer and elk to graze while golden eagles and red tailed hawks act as guardians from above. Many have coveted Hammer Flat--developers, recreationists, environmentalists and ultimately, governments.

When the City of Boise announced its purchase of Hammer Flat in March 2010 with $4.1 million of Foothills serial levy funds, everyone appeared to be happy. The Johnson family (previous owners) and Skyline Development walked away, after watching its 1,350-home planned community hit a wall. Environmentalists and recreationists thought that they would have access to the land in perpetuity and Boise had another jewel in its crown of protected space forged by the 2001 Foothills levy, which to date has secured 10,400 acres.

On Nov. 10, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission voted to purchase Hammer Flat from Boise for $4.23 million, using Bonneville Power Administration mitigation money, funds set aside to offset the power utility's impact to wildlife when building its infrastructure in natural areas.

Most people familiar with Hammer Flat, the Foothills levy or Fish and Game weren't terribly surprised by the announcement. It was the worst-kept secret in town that the state agency had been working behind the scenes to acquire the land as soon as the BPA funds could be secured--the money is expected to be in Fish and Game's hands by the end of the year. But most Boiseans may not know that Fish and Game had been planning on getting the land even before the city's landmark purchase.

In a letter to Boise Department of Parks and Recreation Director Jim Hall, dated Feb. 2, 2010 (a full month before Boise's purchase), Virgil Moore, then-deputy director and now director of Fish and Game, didn't mince words about his agency's intentions.

"We assure you that IDFG is committed to acquiring this property from the city," Moore wrote, even though at the time the city had no rights to the land.

At the same time, one of Moore's colleagues, Fish and Game biologist Ed Bottum, expressed his own opinions about the property. When Aaron Beck, a local commercial photographer was commissioned by the City of Boise to take photos of Hammer Flat for Mayor Dave Bieter's upcoming State of the City presentation, he was accompanied by Bottum. Beck started talking about his passion for paragliding over Hammer Flat.

"And Bottum turned to me and said, 'I can assure you that you will never have access to the land again,'" remembered Beck.

Beck said when he first heard about Boise's purchase of Hammer Flat, he was "jumping for joy," but after his conversation with Bottum, "I was jumping again, but I was hopping mad. I was furious."

Bottum said Beck's account of their conversation was "probably accurate."

"Once Fish and Game owns that property, that's true," said Bottum. "It is state law that any kind of aircraft is forbidden on any land that is in the Wildlife Management Area."

Beck had been paragliding over Hammer Flat for years along with other pilots, including Patrick Harper.

"I can tell you that the impact that we've had on the deer population has been minimal to nonexistent," said Harper.

Beck recalled one Christmas Eve he shared with deer, which each winter consider Hammer Flat a home on the range.

"I was gliding above some of the deer chewing grass in a nice sunny patch," said Beck. "They just looked up and kept eating. We're a non-threat."

Beck and Harper said they're convinced that Fish and Game would limit Hammer Flat recreation to hunting, and that the agency would never let them glide there again.

"As a taxpayer, I feel shafted," said Harper. "Sure, the land is secured but why can't the city just keep it and still make the land a wildlife-management area? I think the city just wants its money back, which will happen if this sale goes through."

Lauren McLean, Boise City Council member and original manager of the 2001 Foothills Open Space Initiative, said she's supportive of a possible sale of Hammer Flat to Fish and Game.

"This land butts right up against other Fish and Game lands that are currently part of its wildlife-management area," said McLean. "It could become one giant parcel that is spectacular for wildlife."

McLean said putting more than $4 million back into the Foothills account while watching Hammer Flat be protected is a bonus. But before any deal with the city goes through, McLean wants to see the details of a so-called "baseline survey" of Hammer Flat, which began in March.

"We're studying impacts to the land for a full year," said McLean. "And it won't be done until March 2012. It would be disingenuous to study it for a year and do nothing. When we're done, we should use that information to talk to Fish and Game about how best to manage the region, and that might include recreation."

McLean said her message to paraglider pilots would be the same as her message to hikers or cyclists: recreation is only one piece of the Foothills initiative.

"Actually, I don't think we would have received nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2001 if it was just about biking and hiking trails. The Foothills are so much more," said McLean. "There are so many more elements of the Foothills space that add value to Boise."

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