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How a ‘floating dump’ in ‘a city committing suicide’ saved Boise

Rafters enjoy the Boise River at the Barber Park put-in on 2016’s opening day, June 29.
Rafters enjoy the Boise River at the Barber Park put-in on 2016’s opening day, June 29. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

“Pathway of Dreams” is a new book by David Proctor about how the once-toxic Boise River became today’s tube-floating paradise and its banks the Valley’s favorite amenity, the Greenbelt. There’s no space here to detail this amazing story, but we can tick off six lessons learned, beginning with “Value Natural Beauty.”

A half-century ago, leaders believed only a Downtown mall would revive Boise, which Harper’s Magazine had called “a city committing suicide.” The Wall Street Journal described the Boise River as “a floating dump” of sewage, construction junk and offal. What saved Downtown was not a mall but the river, now a civic icon.

Capt. Noel Rios, firefighter Joe Ostermiller, and firefighter Chad Tiffany of the Boise Fire Department Dive Team spent Thursday morning clearing obstructions from the Boise River in preparation for the 2016 opening of float season in Boise.

Proctor credits a dozen dogged individuals for the river’s salvation, particularly by exciting public imagination and pride. The public understood Clean and Beautiful before river-adjacent landowners or main street businesses did.

Lesson 2: Plan. Boise had no scheme for how it would grow until it hired Harold Atkinson from California in 1962. Keep the Depot, beautify Capitol Boulevard and “create a continuous green belt of public lands through the city,” Atkinson advised. The city adopted a Greenbelt Plan 50 years ago but didn’t fund it. Eventually, though, Boise took all that advice.

Lesson 3: Use government well. We’re entering another anti-government era, it seems. Governments can be maddening, but Boise’s river was cleansed and beautified largely by the Clean Water Act and federal funding. Building Lucky Peak Dam (derided by the Statesman’s publisher at the time) made possible the verdant riverbanks we have today. The state donated its prison farm, now Warm Springs Golf Course, to the Greenbelt. Government planners, park board and council members and volunteer private lawyers made it happen.

Lesson 4: Compromise. For the Greenbelt, some wanted asphalt, some none. Setbacks should be 50 or up to 300 feet. Boise State’s president wanted no Greenbelt at all. But a tough and pragmatic Greenbelt Committee won the day.

Lesson 5: Imagine. We’re prone to assuming tomorrow will be like today, or worse. Over 40 years ago, Greenbelt leaders dreamed big, and look what we got.

Lesson 6: Get lucky. How could one city be home to parks for people named Davis, Morrison, Albertson, Simplot and Williamson, and a half dozen others, who donated land and money for parks and Greenbelt?

Lucky us.

Jerry Brady is a member of Compassionate Boise, a new organization encouraging compassion in all aspects of life. jbrady2389@gmail.com. This column appears in the July 20-Aug. 16, 2016 edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine. Click here for the daily Statesman e-edition, including Business Insider (subscription required).

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