The largest section of the Boise River drainage “dedicated exclusively to wildlife” is surrounded by the city of Boise — and a little-known community feature.
The Barber Pool Conservation Area is 712 acres with little human activity on the eastern edge of the city, roughly between the Harris Ranch residential development and the Idaho 21 bridge.
“Probably most people only see it when they fly over,” said Brian McDevitt, an Idaho Foundation for Parks and Lands board member.
The foundation owns nearly half of the pool — land gifted by Boise Cascade almost four decades ago. The pool includes a series of islands and land on both sides of the river, which attracts more than 200 species of wildlife. There are resident deer. Other animals you can spot include coyotes, foxes, beavers, rabbits, occasional elk and a variety of birds, including many raptors. Bald eagles use the pool in the winter.
“It provides a tremendous area for wildlife habitat unfettered by human activity,” said Scott Koberg, the director of Ada County Parks and Waterways (the county holds about 35 acres of the pool). “It’s so close to the population but a fairly large piece of property that has tremendous habitat value.”
Ada County owns the Greenbelt section that borders the pool on its way to Lucky Peak Lake.
“It’s sort of what the Valley used to look like,” Koberg said. “It’s one of the last lesser-controlled areas. Even though the Barber Dam is there, the river can kind of do what the river needs to do.”
Barber Pool’s beginnings
Barber Lumber Mill operated in Barber Valley, which is now home to Harris Ranch, River Heights and other developments, from 1904 to 1931, according to the foundation’s history of the pool. A small town called Barberton rose and fell during that time. Barber Dam was built in 1904 and Diversion Dam was added in 1912. The pool between those two dams was used as a log-holding pond for Barber Lumber Co. As logs were floated down the Boise River from as far away as More’s Creek Summit, silt collected in the pond and created the channels and islands that helped form the riparian area.
Boise Cascade Corp., which held the land for decades, donated much of the pool to the Idaho Foundation for Parks and Lands in 1978.
Ada County owns Barber Dam and leases it to Enel Green Power, which uses it to produce hydroelectric power.
Perhaps the best viewing of the Barber Pool is from the Idaho Shakespeare Festival grounds at 5657 E. Warm Springs Ave., which are open to the public. Walk past the box office and explore the short trails, which lead to a couple of observation points and interpretive signs. This is the spot to go if you want to see birds, including bald eagles in the winter.
The most heavily trafficked viewpoint is the Boise River Greenbelt, which runs along the rim just above the pool on the north side of the river. That’s a place where you’ll find deer and coyotes.
For more sweeping views, head to Barber Observation Point. The parking lot is on South Surprise Way, just west of the Idaho 21 bridge that crosses the Boise River.
Limited human activity
The pool is closed to recreational use. The Idaho Foundation for Parks and Lands allows some research to be conducted and contracts some work to preserve the pool, including spraying for weeds. One of the problems the pool faces is the aging of its black cottonwood trees. They only re-seed in the type of flood that won’t happen naturally because of Lucky Peak Dam, McDevitt said. Plans are being considered to redirect some water to the trees.
“They’re doing fine — what they’re not doing is re-populating,” McDevitt said. “... This is something that’s true up and down the Boise River. Since they put in Lucky Peak, we haven’t seen a major flood on the Boise River so that’s probably the last time natural cottonwood seeding actually occurred.”
The foundation has tried hand-planting cottonwoods in the pool. About 10 percent survived.
“It really is tough to get a cottonwood to grow,” McDevitt said.
The goal is to create a self-sufficient property.
“We’ll never be able to make it bigger — all we can do is try to keep it from being impacted further,” McDevitt said. “It’s just trying to slow the deterioration of it. We can get it sustainable, and we’re almost there now. If we can solve the cottonwood problem, then it will pretty much take care of itself.”
Part of that effort entails keeping people (and, particularly, pets) out — a challenge for a property that isn’t fenced to make it easier for wildlife to come and go.
“We rely on people’s good nature, and respect for the property,” said Jan Johns, the foundation’s executive director.
Hiking, Biking & Trails — a public event
Idaho Outdoors will celebrate its latest special section with a public event featuring four local experts — Hiking, Biking & Trails, presented by The Pulse Running & Fitness Shop. The event will run from 5 to 7 p.m. April 26 at Payette Brewing Co. in Boise. Topics will include places to hike, bike and run, ways to get outdoors more often and how you can help preserve Idaho’s vast network of trails. Tickets are on sale for $10 at idahooutdoors.eventbrite.com.
The panel discussion moderated by Playing Outdoors reporter Chadd Cripe will feature the following panelists: Sara Arkle, Foothills and open space superintendent for Boise Parks and Recreation; Leo Hennessy, non-motorized trails coordinator for Idaho State Parks and Recreation; Holly Finch, owner of The Pulse Running & Fitness Shop; and Dennis Swift, secretary of the Southwest Idaho Mountain Biking Association.
The Hiking, Biking & Trails section will appear April 26 in the Idaho Statesman and at IdahoStatesman.com.