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Hiking Beyond the Trails

Upper Dry Creek easement allows for conservation, restoration, research


Tim Breuer doesn't ask the question unless he knows the answer will be "yes." Sometimes, it takes awhile to get there. In the case of the most recent easement agreements between the city of Boise, the Land Trust of the Treasure Valley and Grossman Company Properties, it took 20 years.

"The first time I walked on [Upper Dry Creek] with the landowners was in 1994," said Breuer, who has been the executive director of the Land Trust for eight years. At the time, he was the Ridge to Rivers coordinator for the city of Boise.

Since then, it has been a slow but steady process of wooing the land owners into allowing the public on the popular hiking trails in perpetuity.

Boise foothills hikers have a lot to thank Grossman Company Properties for, after it agreed to another 12.6-mile trail easement linking Polecat Gulch Reserve to the Boise Front earlier this summer--called Daniel's Creek Easement.

The company is known for founding Hidden Springs and developing Eagle River, the 91-acre mixed-use business park in Eagle. It acts as a real estate developer, owner and manager with offices in Boise and Phoenix, Ariz.

Back when the Daniel's Creek Easement was announced, the company's vice president, John Grossman, said in a press release that he was excited to keep Boise's foothills accessible.

"The greatest gift my father and mother gave our family was moving us to Idaho at a very young age," he said. "And with that move came a strong and undying respect for the beauty and vastness of Idaho's rural lands. ... [I]t has been a great honor to work closely with the city of Boise to establish a trail easement across our Daniel's Creek land for the benefit of local Idahoans while preserving our land use rights."

This newest easement agreement, however, goes far beyond the 11 miles of trail just off Bogus Basin Road.

For starters, it isn't just one easement. It includes three separate agreements: one between the city and the owner allowing the permanent trail easement so the Department of Parks and Recreation can perform maintenance; another between the city and the owner with a revocable easement covering nine miles of logging roads; and a third, between the owner and the Land Trust that allows for conservation work in the area.

The last conservation easement encompasses 3,400 acres and gives the Land Trust 10 years to enhance wildlife habitat, minimize sediment into the stream and decrease creek crossings along the trails.

That's the one Breuer has worked so long to make happen. He said it can be tricky to convince a land owner to enter into agreements like these, where collaboration becomes tiresome and public input overwhelming.

"But think of it like the owner of a commercial building that's unlocked, and everyone's just walking in without paying rent," he said. "It's a network of trails not being maintained, and you can't fix the trails until you have the legal right to go in and fix it. It won't stay the same if we just sit back."

Much to the surprise of College of Idaho professor Chris Walser and his biology students, that creek is teeming with redband trout. They discovered the fish population in 2012, and got permission from the property owners to study the native species.

Since then, his students have tagged 450 fish with the help of a $25,000 grant from Wells Fargo and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, as well as many in-kind collaborators including Biomark, Trout Unlimited and Idaho Fish and Game. Specifically, they've started studying the movement of the fish.

Walser is particularly interested in the culvert in Dry Creek on Bogus Basin Road--and seeing if the fish can cross it.

"One big area in fish ecology research is looking at how man-made barriers affect fish movement," he said. "If your population becomes isolated, they're more likely to be driven to extinction."

The research team has found that smaller fish get washed down the culvert and are often not able to swim back before that side of the creek dries up. The summer of 2013 was the worst drought year in Dry Creek in the past 12 years, and the trout population plunged from a healthy 5,000 to around 800.

While the conservation easement doesn't change much in the way of access for Walser and his students, it does shift their focus.

It lets them address the major problem with the Upper Dry Creek--the 20 times the trail crosses the stream without bridges. Every time hikers and mountain bikers make those little leaps across the water, they're dumping dirt into the trout habitat, reducing the fish's ability to spawn.

"Usually when you do research like this, the goal is to publish it," Walser said. "But now we can take what we learn and see how to better the trails and restore the habitat, rather than the information just getting lost in a scientific article."

Walser will work with the Land Trust and Ridge to Rivers to maintain and restore the trails and creek banks. Meanwhile, Breuer said it will require some "creative options," but they have the next 10 years to figure it out.