Boise & Garden City

Skinny Dipper Hot Springs near Banks could stay open if fans reach deal with BLM

A coalition of volunteers would maintain trails, pick up trash and monitor safety around Skinny Dipper Hot Springs.

In this scenario, the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land, would put up signs warning people to stay on the trails, pack out their trash and leave before sundown — or pay a fine.

That’s one option that’s emerging in the discussion of what can be done to keep Skinny Dipper, located just north of the Banks-to-Lowman Highway a few miles east of Banks, open.

Nothing’s official yet. Tate Fischer, who manages the BLM office for most of southern Idaho, said he’s meeting with the agency’s upper-level management this week to discuss a compromise between users of the popular hot springs and the federal government. Later this week, Fischer said he’ll meet with members of the public who are interested in Skinny Dipper’s fate.

“The public outcry has been very well-received,” Fischer said. “I think it’s a step in the right direction, and we’re going to do everything we can to try to remedy the problem.”

FED UP

On April 28, the BLM announced that it would close Skinny Dipper on May 28. The problems are just too many, the agency said. It has responded to more than 125 incidents related to the hot springs, and the BLM cited litter and human feces on the ground, concern about people using drugs there and committing other crimes, fire danger and erosion along the access trail. Two people have died there since 2009.

The most avid users of Skinny Dipper admit some people litter, and some cut off the trail’s switchbacks, degrading the land. But the BLM is exaggerating the danger and yuck factor, they say. Some suspect the agency just doesn’t want to deal with the nuisance.

A tiny minority of users are responsible for most of the problems, Skinny Dipper fans say.

“In life, you know how it is. There’s some people who get it, and there’s some people who don’t,” said Britton Valle, a Meridian man who started the “Save Skinny Dipper Hot Springs” Facebook page after the BLM announced the closure. “The people who fight, the people who do drugs, the people who do anything they’re not supposed to, I’d say the vast majority of it happens when the sun starts to go down or is gone. And I’ve seen it.”

By Monday, the Facebook page had more than 8,000 likes.

‘BARE HABITAT’

Twenty years ago, Ken Palmer started packing bags of cement up the hill above the Banks-to-Lowman Highway to the drainage where Skinny Dipper Hot Springs is located now. The Boise man had often noticed steam coming off the hillside as he drove by on his way to the Bonneville Hot Springs, east of Lowman, where he and his friends liked to soak in the nude.

After a while, Bonneville got overrun by people who weren’t big fans of seeing strangers naked. Palmer vowed he’d find a hot springs off the road where the skinny dippers could soak undisturbed.

So Palmer built Skinny Dipper. The hot water was too hot, so he installed hundreds of feet of PVC pipe to control the flow of cold and hot water into the pools he built. He had help, but he wouldn’t say from whom. He didn’t want to out someone who might be held financially or legally liable for installing the pipes and cement without permission from the agency that manages the public land.

Signs by the trail warn that nudity is likely. They say things like “Bare Habitat” and “You may encounter bare.”

Skinny Dipper has become a destination for thousands. Its biggest fans talk about it in almost religious terms. The word “spiritual” comes up a lot.

“This is where I’ll really plan out my life,” said Valle, who likes to arrive early in the morning, when he can have the pools to himself and watch the sunrise. “When I have a question, this is where I go. There’s something about nature that’s really powerful.”

SERMON ON THE HILL

On Friday, there was about as much litter as you’re likely to find in a well-used campsite: a discarded bikini top, a blown-out flip-flop, cigarette butts, packaging for glow sticks. Christina McCarty, a Boise woman who’s been going to Skinny Dipper for 15 years, said she’s as disgusted with the people who abuse as with the BLM.

“Feral is feral,” she said. “I play by the rules, and now they’re taking it away from me, and it makes me irate to no end.”

Palmer said he constantly picks up trash other people leave behind.

“It’s a labor of love,” he said. “A lot of people have come up and said to me, ‘That’s got to really make you angry.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it probably would except for I enjoy the springs enough that I’m just going to take care of it. I don’t care how bad it is.’ ”

He and some of his friends commend the conscientious people they see. They anoint them “Keepers.”

“We’ve said it for years to everybody that goes up: ‘You have to treat this good or we won’t have it,’ ” he said. “But, you know, I can’t preach to the ones that I don’t see.”

PIPES, CEMENT AND NATURE

Kyme Graziano said she’s meeting with Fischer on Friday to start down what could be a long path to compromise on Skinny Dipper.

The Boise woman is spearheading the effort to keep Skinny Dipper open. But that’s not all she wants. Graziano said she’s worried about the same problems the BLM identified in announcing the looming closure. A successful agreement will mean addressing those issues permanently, she said.

She wants to put some kind of toilet near the springs and rehabilitate the degraded hillside where people have cut across the trail’s switchbacks. She hopes the BLM puts up signs educating people to follow good stewardship practices.

“This is a location that is worth saving and we are working hard to do it in a positive, productive manner,” Graziano said.

The existence of pipes and cement is a potential obstacle to an agreement. Fischer said there’s no precedent for allowing that level of unauthorized material to remain in place. One possibility is to remove it and develop pools and water channels with natural materials, he said.

“That might be a little more work, but it definitely retains the resource value,” Fischer said.

Graziano would rather leave the unauthorized pipes and cement in place and obscure them from view. But she doesn’t take a hard line. She’s open to removing them, if that’s what it takes to keep Skinny Dipper open.

Valle suggested harsh fines and other penalties for people who abuse the hot springs and surrounding land. He said he might be in favor of prohibiting alcohol and smoking, or even temporarily shutting down the springs when there’s a blatant violation of rules.

“I was hoping that word would never get out (about) this place,” Valle said. “But I’m switching focus now. Now I know that the only way to save this is really raise a lot of awareness and really show people the benefits of it.”

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