A cluster of hawks sails through the clear summer sky, swooping and dipping, rising higher into the clouds. In silence, another, much larger and brighter creature joins them in flight. For more than 30 years, lifetime Boise resident and airline pilot John Kangas has taken to the air above the high desert landscape of Idaho with nothing more than a hang glider, often flying alongside golden eagles, red tailed hawks and kestrels.
As spokesman for the Idaho Hang Gliding Association, it's a sport close to his heart, but for the past three months, the City of Boise has prohibited Kangas and other hang gliders from flying at Boise's only gliding hill.
Shortly after the city used $4.1 million in Foothills Levy Funds to purchase the Hammer Flat property north of Highway 21 near Lucky Peak Reservoir from a bank in March, Boise Parks and Recreation locked access gates leading up to the 700-acre area and posted "no trespassing" signs.
This has angered hang gliders like Kangas who had been using the Crow Gliding Area north of Ben's Crow Inn for more than 35 years with the permission of the former landowners. The next closest hill is at Pickle Butte, south of Lake Lowell about one hour from Boise.
Parks and Rec, which manages the Foothills, was responsible for acquiring the Hammer Flat property from the Johnson family and Skyline Development Corp., which sold it to avoid bankruptcy. Management responsibilities for Hammer Flat were transferred to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game soon after the purchase.
Adam Park, spokesman for Mayor Dave Bieter, said the gates to Hammer Flat were locked because IDFG and the city have yet to reach an agreement on which uses should be allowed. Park also said the area saw a significant increase in traffic after the purchase announcement.
"Parks and Rec felt we had to protect it for right now and make sure everyone and their dog isn't up there for the time being until the deal is put in place," Park said. "Once we make that decision about what those uses should be, we'll open it up to those uses."
On June 4, Kangas and Lisa Tate, president of the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, met with Boise City Council President Maryanne Jordan, Bieter's Chief of Staff Jade Riley and Boise Parks and Recreation Director Jim Hall to discuss the historic usage of the site and the nature of hang gliding. Before the meeting ended, the group was tasked with providing the city with use agreements the group has throughout the state and region.
The Idaho Hang Gliding Association maintains agreements with various agencies, such as the United States Forest Service, which partners with them in cost sharing and maintenance duties at the King Mountain Glider Area in Moore, near Sun Valley.
Kangas left the recent meeting with the city feeling optimistic but said he will have to wait and see if the open dialog continues.
"I found the discussion to be generally quite positive, and they asked a lot of good questions to get a good sense of what we do here," Kangas said. "However, these were things we brought to Parks and Recreation's attention two months ago."
Representatives from the 150-member group initially met with Foothills Open Space Manager Julia Grant to discuss their interest in the area on March 18. Kangas said the group didn't hear back from the city until April when they were told Hammer Flat was an agency-to-agency agreement and there would not be a public comment period.
Two weeks earlier during a meeting between Fish and Game and Boise Parks and Recreation, Foothills Conservation Advisory Committee Chair Charles McDevitt and Hall were both "not inclined to allow" hang gliding.
"Decisions were made by a certain core group of individuals—there was no public process," Kangas said.
The May 28 announcement that the IDFG was interested in purchasing the property raised a lot of questions among government officials, neighbors and recreationists.
Funds to purchase Hammer Flat came from a $10 million Foothills serial tax levy voters approved in 2001, which named five purposes: "protect water quality; preserve wildlife habitat; provide increased recreational areas for walking, biking and other outdoor activities; limit overdevelopment and traffic; and protect natural vegetation that prevents mudflows and washouts." Kangas is frustrated the city used the funds to buy the land, only to announce intentions to sell it to another agency.
"We elected to raise our taxes to improve open land, it wasn't to be a banker or a broker for another individual," Kangas said.
According to IDFG Deputy Director Virgil Moore, IDFG, which also manages the 35,000-acre Boise River Wildlife Management Area north of Hammer Flat as critical mule deer winter range, had been interested in the property since February. Though the city was interested in purchasing the property with or without the Fish and Game's support, he said they approached IDFG to inquire if the department would be willing to purchase the property.
IDFG sent a letter to Boise Parks and Rec in February assuring them, "IDFG is committed to acquiring this property from the city and entering into an agreement that would reimburse the city for their cost in acquiring the property."
Moore said IDFG did not purchase the land directly from the bank because the department often does not have access to funds to purchase private property on hand, stating they often look to third-party entities.
Although the city initially wanted to prohibit hunting at Hammer Flat, it soon became apparent any deal with IDFG would have to allow hunting.
"If there is a 'no hunting' restriction then we're not interested," IDFG spokesman Mike Keckler said. "If we can evaluate where certain restrictions can be placed, that's fine. It's a hunting ban we are concerned with."
Idaho Sportsmen's Caucus Advisory Council President Mark Bell personally believes hunters should have access to the land because they are the source of IDFG's funding.
"Sportsmen have been dedicated to providing those resources—sportsmen pay for that," Bell said.
IDFG has yet to conduct an analysis of the area to determine what limitations would be necessary to ensure the safety of surrounding neighbors. Moore said Fish and Game is currently spending its efforts on maintenance of the area while the city still owns the land. He affirms the public will be asked for input and review of any future management plans for the property. Park also said the city plans to request public input regarding uses at Hammer Flat in the near future but has yet to make any official announcements.
Tony Jones, who lives in the Foothills adjacent to Hammer Flat, headed up the savetheplateau.org efforts five years ago to prevent a 1,350-residence housing development called the Cliffs from being built on the property. Jones was ecstatic when the city acquired the land, and he is currently indifferent about the potential purchase by IDFG.
"Realistically, anything other than a subdivision is going to better for the animals," Jones said.
Though he's not opposed to people accessing the area, Jones remains dedicated to his original mission: The wildlife comes first. Kangas insists hang gliding has no impact on wildlife. However, Jones has noticed a significant increase of animal activity at Hammer Flat this spring, and although unsure of the cause, he believes continued usage restrictions are worth investigating.
"If they can find a way to do other things—the hang gliders, whoever--that don't impact wildlife, I'm open to it," Jones said. "They just need to investigate the impacts of anything to the wildlife before they just open it up."
Jones, who is not opposed to hunting on Hammer Flat, believes the purchase by IDFG could be a huge benefit to the city because the money they receive from a sale could allow them to buy other Foothills land and pursue other recreational avenues.
"They could use the money to do some marvelous trail work and other stuff in other parts in the Foothills where wildlife isn't nearly the concern as it is on Hammer Flat," Jones said.