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A River Runs Through It

How Boise Got Its Greenbelt

By Amy Larson, Photography by Cy Gilbert and courtesy of the City of BoiseFounders-of-the-Greenbelt

In the 1960s, city councilman Bill Onweiler brainstormed with associates about how to keep people from building within the Boise River’s flood plain during an everyday backroom conversation, when director of city parks Gordon Bowen chimed in, “We could make it parks.”

The tenacious Onweiler was the perfect go-to guy with which to implant an idea. Scouting prospective areas, he climbed fences, was threatened by shotgun-toting landowners, and nosed around behind businesses. There would be a lot of convincing supporters, land-gathering, cleanup, lawmaking, and fundraising ahead.

In Onweiler’s 1970 home movie, the man who became known as “Greenbelt Billy” campaigned via crackling audio that if a path with parks was created, visitors would stay longer. He reasoned, “What attracted the first pioneers to Boise? Was it the Boise River and the trees in the valley, set against the soft foothills?” and added a “trained observer’s” critical comment, “We have a most attractive train depot, an arresting view of the vista down Capital, and a river no one can find”.

Physical access to the river was hard-won; many long-time residents had never even viewed it. Onweiler employed a helicopter to make the movie he showed to Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, pitching the “green belt” to all who’d listen. Knowing people loved being in, near, and on the water, this was something Boise could offer by increased usage of the liquid thread spanning the city.

“With the ‘green belt’,” Onweiler urged, ”we can get away and recharge our emotional resistance to speed, mechanism, and sounds of today’s world.”

The city hired consultant Harold Atkinson to form a comprehensive plan for continuous Boise park systems connecting large parcels like golf courses and Boise State University. The largest city in Idaho was about to receive its crowning jewel, and though generous amounts of land were donated, some businesses and landowners were firmly against the acquisition of their property. Little by little, land was collected using various means, one parcel at a time.

Impossible to ignore was the fact that land on either side of the Boise needed serious cleanup. Thousands of residents and multiple organizations combined efforts, hauling away refuse from the banks, and were further spurred to action when a metal pipe caused the drowning of a twelve-year-old child.

A lasting representation of people who’ve worked together for decades, not only was the Boise River Greenbelt idea diligently nurtured, land collected, and red tape surpassed, but extensive and costly cleanup was completed, with the former dumping grounds becoming not only clean, but a source of community pride that connects its population.

The 30-plus mile Greenbelt now hosts walkers, cyclists, runners, and skaters. Benches, bike maintenance stations, picnic tables, parks, lakes, tubing launch areas, golf courses, Boise State, Zoo Boise, and a host of other sights are along the route initiating East of Boise at Lucky Peak Dam and ending just west of Eagle, Idaho.

“Greenbelt Billy” lived to see the predictions he once made on his home movie come to pass:

“The wisdom of the city administration in giving high priority to Greenbelt acquisition and development will be appreciated for countless generations. From now on, the banks of the river will be reserved for public recreation forever. In Boise, as in few cities, all its citizens will be able to satisfy man’s urge to recreate on or near the water. In an age of private greed, capturing lake and river frontages for future use by only those who can pay, Boise is saving for all citizens and guests the natural resources of her river, islands, parks, lakes, and banks.”