When Ken Palmer noticed steam rising out of the mountains along the South Fork of the Payette River 20 years ago, he investigated. The local builder and remodeler found a creek of hot water running down the mountainside and, with the help of friends, built a pool to collect the water.
"I packed 94-pound bags of cement up the trail," Palmer told Boise Weekly, referring to the steep, rocky half-mile path—which he also built—leading to the springs.
By the end of 1995, Palmer had made two pools that stair-stepped each other and added pipes to pull hot water from the stream, thereby creating the now well-known Skinny Dipper Hot Springs four miles east of Banks.
Palmer chose the Skinny Dipper name to attract a niche crowd but as word got out, the hot springs became populated by families, kids, college students, travelers and outdoorsy types—some more nude than others. He estimates at least 5,000 people visit each year.
On a recent spring Sunday, 13 cars filled the small parking pull-out off the Banks-Lowman Highway. A handful of soakers spread out in the lower pool and a family dominated the top pool, far enough away to be out of earshot.
In the middle of the lower pool, on a large boulder, sat Palmer, enjoying his soak and living up to the hot springs' name. The 71-year-old visits the springs every Sunday to collect bottles, cans and trash.
"It's depressing to do so much work," Palmer said, "and to see so many people enjoy it, for the BLM to just close it down."
A recent decision by the Bureau of Land Management would close Skinny Dipper Hot Springs for the next five years and rehabilitate the land. That will mean tearing out the pools and plugging the pipes. The access trail will be revegetated, and fire-killed trees will be felled and laid across the trail to discourage use.
Four Rivers Field Manager Tate Fischer announced on April 27 the decision to close the pools. Fischer said the legal reason for closing the springs is because it's unauthorized use of public lands—using them is considered trespass. The bigger problem is the growing number of incidents at Skinny Dipper.
According to the BLM, law enforcement has responded to more than 125 calls in the past five years at the springs: underage drinking, illegal drug use, vehicle break-ins and sexual assault. Three deaths have occurred at the springs: a drug-related murder, heart attack and fatal fall from a nearby cliff.
"I'm responsible for maintaining public health and safety on public lands," Fischer told BW. "And right now, I don't feel confident I can do that at Skinny Dipper."
As Skinny Dipper has continued to gain notoriety, the BLM has taken steps to maintain the hot springs as a safe place. In an effort to curb accidents and prevent crime, the BLM made a decision in 2009 to close the hot springs from sunset to sunrise and reiterated the policy in 2012.
Regardless, Fischer said hot springs users have continued to be a problem.
"A lot of folks want to keep it open. A lot of those folks are day users and families," Fischer said. "Then others said it has become a nightmare, and no one cleans it. There's an old burned out tree trunk people used to defecate in, and runoff is going into the water. It's unfortunate, but that's just the way it is."
Palmer waved his arm dismissively.
"That tree trunk was way over there," Palmer said. "Some guy nailed a couple planks of wood to the trunk so that people could take a shit. Big deal. When we learned it had become a problem, we cleaned it up and took it out. That was a year-and-a-half ago."
The tree trunk was about 300 feet east of the hot springs, but the BLM and Central District Health Department feared the waste could contaminate the Payette River. The BLM found other biohazardous materials in the area, as well, including used hypodermic needles.
The agency's decision to close the hot springs can be challenged through the Interior Board of Land Appeals before Thursday, May 28. Fischer said a group or an individual can apply for a special use permit for the hot springs, which would make maintenance of the site their responsibility.
"Someone could apply for a permit tomorrow, and we would leave the pools intact—but no one has stepped forward," he said.
Officially closing the springs is a long process that needs to be published in the Federal Register, so the closure can't be enforced until later this year, Fischer said. If no one claims the pools, they are scheduled to be removed as early as fall 2016, however, the BLM is still encouraging people to leave the area alone.
Palmer, meanwhile, plans to keep showing up for his Sunday soak and cleaning up the best he can for as long as he can.