Maybe it was the turnout. Perhaps it was the old-school, roll-up-your sleeves engagement. Or possibly the fact that Boise citizens were, quite literally, mapping out the future of one of the city's prize possessions.
"This is pretty amazing," said Tim Breuer, executive director of the Land Trust of the Treasure Valley, surveying the scene as scores of Boiseans grabbed fistfuls of highlighter markers to blaze new trails through what has become known as the Hillside to the Hollow.
"It's vast in size, yet highly accessible. It is, quite possibly, the most accessible piece of property that we have in the Foothills," said Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway. "And what's fascinating is that this property had been used by the public for years as if they owned it, in spite of the fact that it was privately owned."
But it wasn't too long ago that any kind of access to the hundreds of pristine acres--running north of Hill Road between Bogus Basin Road and 33rd Street--was in jeopardy. Much of the land was owned by Boise Foothills LLC (formerly known as DBSI Boise Foothills), a consortium of 51 individuals who were convinced by DBSI executives that the land could turn into their own personal ATMs by filling the hilltops with housing developments.
For better or worse, DBSI collapsed in a landslide of controversy. In fact, four of its top executives were convicted of dozens of instances of fraud. Prosecutors pointed to a slew of questionable deals including DBSI's purchase, through a subsidiary, of the Hillside to the Hollow land. When everything went south, the 51 investors did everything possible to distance themselves from the doomed housing project and, ultimately, put the land on the open real estate market. That's when the Land Trust of the Treasure Valley saw the silver lining in a very dark cloud and stepped in to purchase a 59-acre slice of the controversial, but very desirable land.
"Think of that for a moment, said Breuer. "Only a few years ago, more than 300 acres of Boise land were at risk of being developed, but citizens decided to shine a spotlight on this hidden gem and they rallied to save the land. That gave us the confidence to do the deal."
The city of Boise took note of the Land Trust's confidence and completed its own complex transaction, purchasing the remaining 260 acres.
"I like to call it an 'island oasis' because it's not like, say, Hulls Gulch, which is an entryway into the greater Boise Foothills. Hillside to the Hollow is more self-contained, surrounded by homes," said Breuer. "The people who use it have created the land's own distinct personality."
But instead of hiking its trails, many of those same people chose to spend a gorgeous early summer evening May 28 indoors, packing into a cafeteria of Hillside Junior High School, a stone's throw from the trails. Close to 150 people, some hikers, some bikers and more than a few dog walkers, grabbed a seat--about 10 to a table--and huddled over big topographical maps of Hillside to the Hollow.
"Put your trays up in their upright position; here we go," joked Breuer, before introducing the evening's tour guide, Ellen Campfield Nelson, who staffs Agnew Beck environmental resource consulting offices in Boise.
Nelson often wears several hats--and on this occasion she wore all of them at once, quite literally.
"The first hat should inspire you to ask, 'How do I like to use Hillside to the Hollow?'" she said, pulling out a cap with the word "ME" taped to the front.
"The second hat should encourage you to think about what your neighbors and the kids in the community would like to see," she said, placing a second cap bearing the word "COMMUNITY' on top of the first cap.
"And now, there's a third cap," she said, pulling it on top of the other two. "By the way, I can barely see any of you. But the words in front of the hat say 'LAND MANAGER.' We're asking you to start thinking about all of the resources that might be necessary to do all the things you wish to see happen."
But those wish lists were varied and, sometimes, in direct conflict with one another. For example, when one attendee suggested that the trails should be ideal for dogs, another resident quickly countered: "No, no, no."
But it turned out that there were a lot more agreements, than not.
"I would like to see things remain the way it is right now. Everybody gets along up there," said one participant.
"Right on!" shouted a man from the other side of the room.
But keeping things "the way it is right now" is easier said than done.
"I have heard a lot of people say, 'It's been like this for so long without anyone overseeing anything. Why do we even have to be at this meeting?' I'll tell you why," said Nelson. "Boise's population is growing, and the more people you have, the more pressure there will be on our resources. I promise you, nothing will stay the same if you leave it alone. In order for it stay the way it is today, we have to figure out how to manage it so that it stays that way. That's a fact."
And a more immediate fact is that many of the trails at Hillside to the Hollow need maintenance as soon as possible.
"The trails are severely rutted in some places," Breuer told Boise Weekly.
"Oh yes," agreed Holloway. "The trails need a lot of work. And that's something we can start sooner than later."
But Holloway was quick to caution the workshop attendees that any rumors they may had heard regarding changes to Hillside to the Hollow simply weren't true.
"You may have heard that we're changing or even eliminating trails. Someone called me and even said, 'I've run my dog up there for 20 years and now I'm not going to be able to do that.' None of that has been decided," said Holloway. "We absolutely need to engage the public. Now, that may mean we have different types of trails for different types of users. That's what this whole process is all about."
And when the Hillside to the Hollow planning process wraps up, Foothills users can expect even more maps and more engagement.
"We've got a lot more planning to do for all of the Foothills; the city has 4,000 acres now through its preservation fund," said Holloway. "So, we'll be working on that master plan for the next year to year-and-a-half."