Idaho City education center turns outdoors into ideal classroom

It’s possible for students to learn a great deal about forest ecosystems through lectures, textbooks, online videos and other materials.

But there’s nothing like being there — the multisensory experience of walking under towering pines, catching glimpses of skittering wildlife and studying plants, rocks, soil and streams up close.

Idaho City High School senior Aaron Carignan is awed by the world outside his back door. It’s very different than his previous experience living in Orange County, Calif.

“You couldn’t walk in your backyard and see elk,” said Carignan, who created and maintains a Facebook page for the new Idaho Center for Outdoor Education, which is near the city schools just outside Idaho City limits.

Carignan is part of the nine-member school/community steering committee that is developing the 78-acre ICOE site for all sorts of users: students, runners, hikers, campers and stargazers. It will be open to all-comers, though campers will need to obtain permits. (Those permits could be available starting this spring; a nominal fee will be charged to defray maintenance costs.)

Much work has been done or is underway. About a mile of a 1.5-mile, ADA-compliant, wheelchair-accessible trail that wends its way up a hilltop has been excavated, and half of that has been raked out. A permanent restroom, like what you’d find at a state campground, has been installed near the center of the property. A seasonal stream called Spanish Fork has been rehabilitated from damage caused by motorcycles and ATVs, restored to its original bed. Shop students made a half-dozen handicapped-accessible picnic tables, and they’ll be involved in making other structures for the site.

The plan for the site includes a 21-acre disc golf course (in a rocky area of mining tailings); an archery range; a covered pavilion (for classes through the winter); a wetlands overlook; and an observatory platform. Later phases could feature a multipurpose lab/classroom; a display area for wildlife mounts; a rope course or zipline; bunkhouses/guest cabins; a mess hall; and a yurt.

“Students are involved in all phases — planning, activities, maintenance,” said Basin School District Superintendent John McFarlane. “Our students as part of their science curriculum will be guides for other schools. They’ll be experts in water quality or soil quality.”

Completion of the archery range is one student’s senior project, and the first nine holes of the disc golf course are another’s.

McFarlane teaches science at the high school. His bachelor’s degree is in environmental studies, and he worked as a research biologist in Washington state early in his career. He said he’s delighted by how things are coming together for this project — they’ve received several grants and more are in the offing — and likes that the students are learning to be good stewards.

McFarlane said school groups from all over the region could benefit from the ICOE site, and he hopes Treasure Valley residents who love the outdoors will come check it out.


The Basin School District began trying to acquire land near the high school in 2000, first for a school expansion and then for the outdoor education/recreation center. The education center had sporadic support from school administrators, so that slowed progress.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management agreed to lease 78 acres to the district in 2011. In September, the BLM sold it to the district for $866.

The site’s official ribbon-cutting ceremony will be in late April or May, McFarlane said.

Congress enacted the Recreation and Public Purposes Act in 1954 as way for local governments and nonprofits to lease or purchase federal land for public purposes, including schools, monuments, parks and landfills.

That law is also how the city of Boise acquired the Military Reserve property in the northeast Foothills, said Jeremy Bluma, a realty specialist with the BLM’s Boise District Office.

The city’s website says the BLM granted Boise 474 acres in 1956, along with the access road and cemetery. The city expanded the reserve in 2006 when it purchased the adjacent 260-acre Hawkins property.

The site has numerous public uses, including an archery range, an old military cemetery and trails.

More recently, Caldwell leased land to develop the 30-acre Mallard Park. Other examples in Idaho include a motorcycle park in Payette County and a runway for radio-controlled airplanes and helicopters in southern Ada County.

Bluma said these land deals usually start with a lease, an arrangement that can go on for years. BLM officials want to be sure agencies have the resources and a plan in place to develop projects the way they propose before a sale is arranged.

“The agency is definitely looking at these as sort of a partnership — a white hat partnership,” Bluma said. “These are certainly done all across the West.”


The two community members of ICOE’s steering committee are scientists: Kim Chmura, a chemical engineer, and Ken Gordon, a university biology professor.

Chmura has been the lead grant writer for the group. She’s been very successful, securing almost $50,000. Some of that money was spent on the permanent toilet, microscopes, cameras and trail maintenance.

The ICOE steering committee said it feels as though it has gained momentum this year.

“It really brings the entire community together,” said Carignan, the high school senior. “We’ve seen that on various occasions. I remember on May 12th of last year, the whole school came out. We had colleges there, members of the community, businesses.”

Chmura is already dreaming of having the ICOE site host a science fair. She’d like to encourage students to go deeper into the natural sciences in the same way that technology is promoted.

“They (students) think of STEM as something that only happens indoors,” she said.

The ICOE steering committee members said that so much of Idaho’s economy is still based in the environment — forestry, agriculture, ranching, mining and tourism — that it’s important for the next generations to understand and protect the state’s resources.

School district money won’t be spent to develop or maintain the education center, so it must be self-sustaining. One idea for generating revenue is to build and rent out a yurt.

McFarlane said the yurt in the Boise National Forest is booked up year-round, and it goes for $90 a night. So if ICOE could do the same, that could bring in almost $33,000 a year.

They’ve looked at what’s been done at other outdoor education/recreation centers in Boise (Foothills Learning Center), McCall and Anchorage, Alaska.

“We want to carve out our own identity. We don’t want to duplicate what someone else is doing,” McFarlane said.

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller

Grants, donations received

Hemingway Foundation$2,975. Funding to purchase property from the BLM; separately paid for four trail cameras, digital microscopes, digital cameras and a photo printer.

Southwest Idaho Resource Advisory Committee$34,000. Funded toilet at trail head, trail maintenance tools, road and streambed repairs. Also funded future fencing, wetlands boardwalk/overlook and habitat restoration.

Basin School District Class of 2015 — $2,000. Money went toward purchase of disc golf baskets. Students made six benches and a teacher spent about a week cutting a trail.

Idaho Office of Drug Policy$10,377. Disc golf baskets and archery targets.

School patrons/donors. Observadome for the future observatory on top of the hill, and funds to rent equipment to cut the trail.

How to get to ICOE

Take Idaho 21 to Idaho City. Turn left on Main Street, continue past the Centerville Road intersection (Main Street turns into Elk Creek Road) and look for the elementary school on your left. Access the ICOE site about a quarter-mile past the elementary school on Elk Creek, just past the football field. Visitors can park in the football field parking lot or in the small turnout by the bathroom.

Idaho Center for Outdoor Education Goals

▪  Visitors will have a greater understanding of human beings’ impact on the environment, and the environment’s impact on humans’ health and well-being.

▪  Provide youths with outdoor activities that promote a healthy lifestyle.

▪  Restore and protect land around the ICOE site, while keeping it available for use by schools and the public.

▪  Be financially self-sustaining in terms of management, promotion, maintenance and operations.

Source: Strategic Plan for Idaho Center for Outdoor Education