Amanda Hoffman, with the Idaho Bureau of Land Management, is asking: Do you know what’s in your backyard?

Kuna is known as the “gateway” to the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. The scenic and historic area is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its designation as a conservation area, boasting the largest population of birds of prey, or raptors, in Idaho, the nation, and possibly the world, according to Hoffman.

Hoffman, the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area manager, is working with the Birds of Prey National Conservation Area Partnership and other organizations to show all the area has to offer.

“When I think about the history of the (national conservation area) I think of a diverse group of local stakeholders coming together and realizing the area was important and working together to protect it,” Hoffman said. “And I think the 25th anniversary gives us an opportunity to recognize that effort, (that) there are still some people around who participated in it, and then it also gives us an opportunity to introduce it to a whole new generation and people who have moved into the valley and just might not be aware of it.”

‘IT’S JUST SAGEBRUSH’ ... OR IS IT?

Kuna used to host a variety of events showcasing the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. One of the larger events was the Snake River Birds of Prey Festival, which was hosted annually from around 2009 to 2011.

Buses would transport attendees up Swan Falls Road in Kuna. Lectures on birds of prey, or raptor, identification, the area’s history, falconry and wild life photography were offered.

A movie night and banquet were also hosted during the festival.

Kuna resident Aldis Garsvo, who helped with the festival, said people stopped volunteering, and attendance was low considering the size of the festival.

The last year the festival was held was 2011.

Garsvo said he thinks Treasure Valley residents, including those in Kuna, did not recognize the significance of the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.

SIGNIFICANCE TO KUNA, MELBA

In addition to being home to eagles, falcons, hawks, etc., the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area embodies critical pieces of Kuna and Melba histories which Kuna and Melba residents worked to highlight.

The area is home to the Western Heritage Historic Byway, established by local residents such as Garsvo and Dave Lyon. Garsvo and Lyon worked with others to create a corridor management plan for the byway which details points of interest and significance along the road.

“If someone comes in and says, ‘What’s there to see on this byway?’” Garsvo said, “they have that guideline.”

Significant historic points include Initial Point, which served as the starting point for mapping out Idaho’s boundaries, Garsvo said, because that spot provided long lines of visibility of land.

“Every point in Idaho,” Garsvo said, “is referenced back to that the initial Initial Point.”

The byway includes Melba’s Celebration Park, due to efforts from Tom Bicak, with Canyon County Parks and Recreation. Celebration Park showcases the historic Guffey Bridge, initially built to aide mining operations, and Native-American petroglyphs scratched on river rock.

“We wanted to take the byway down to Murphy,” Garsvo said, “but Owyhee County commissioners (at the time) wanted nothing to do with (the project). Our reason for wanting to go to Murphy was because that was the best place for a visitor to experience the west. There’s such a well-established museum in Murphy, so in early tourism products we recommended heading down (highway) 78 to Murphy.”

Garsvo added that the Western Heritage Historic Byway, established around 2004, is only one of four byways in the state that has been recognized as a national scenic byway.

“National recognition opened up (the opportunity for) development grants,” Garsvo said, “But more importantly it put our byway on the map of places in America that are part of the historic fabric of America, like the Gettysburg Battlefield, where it has a significant role in American history. We are now part of that.”

Garsvo said the team brought in about $1 million from the Federal Highway Association to improve the byway. Kuna’s part of the byway starts near the corner of Swan Falls Road with a visitors center detailing history of the area.

Some information visitors will find there is how the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, which the byway runs through, got its name.

Garsvo and Lyon worked with Boise resident Morley Nelson, who the area is named after, to make a promotional video about the Birds of Prey National Conservation Area and the birds that live there.

The main emphasis of the byway, Garsvo said, is the national conservation area, established 25 years ago this year. Nelson, who died in 2005, was a soil scientist, conservationist, and bird enthusiast. Nelson’s love of raptors, according to Garsvo, started when Nelson was a small boy living in Iowa.

“When (Nelson) moved his family to Boise,” Garsvo said. “(While) he was doing snow surveys in the local hills, he started wandering around the (Snake River) canyon observing this huge population of raptors and that’s what started (the national conservation area).”

Nelson’s enthusiasm and work attracted attention from celebrities, Garsvo said, including John Denver, pictured in a painting with Nelson, Michael Eisner, with Disney and Paul Newman and his daughter.

Garsvo said the national conservation area was a magnet in developing tourism and the byway helped facilitate that. Once used primarily for logging and transporting agricultural goods, towns and cities saw an opportunity for income.

“As logging started waning, (cities) started losing money, communities were drying up because there was no work, no income,” Garsvo said. “So they decided to start designating these beautiful roads through Idaho as scenic byways to be able to provide economic development for rural communities. Tourists traveling down a byway, they’re going to get gas, they’re going to get food, they’re (possibly) going to need lodging … that was the whole point behind it.”

Lyon pointed out Kuna does not have a hotel or motel.

Garsvo added that one of the challenges the Western Heritage Historic Byway is that Kuna (and Melba) doesn’t have much business infrastructure.

“The idea was that the local businesses … like hotels and eateries … would then contribute to the byway to help provide some additional funding to the byway to help develop further tourism products,” Garsvo said. “We (have) downtown Kuna and that (was) just a couple of restaurants (at the time) and that was about it. We couldn’t tap into them for further development.”

The only additional source of funding, Garsvo added, would be either state or federal grants.

IS IT TIME TO BRING THE FESTIVAL BACK?

One of the biggest challenges that the Snake River Birds of Prey Festival faced was the stereotype that Kuna was a long drive away from more urban areas like Boise.

“If you talk to people in Boise they say ‘Oh Kuna? That’s way out there.’ That was one challenge we had putting on the Birds of Prey Festival,” Garsvo said. “Because Kuna was just perceived as way out there.”

However, he added, the larger challenge was not developing the tourism for the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area and the Western Heritage Historic Byway but rather was encouraging excitement from the local people in Kuna to even go down there and utilize it.

Garsvo shared a story told by a friend of his who lives in the northern Idaho area.

“I saw this in other byways … like the White Pine Historic Byway in northern Idaho … it’s a beautiful drive in these huge white pine old growth forests, just tall, tall trees,” he said, “but when you talk to the locals they go, ‘Yeah it’s just a bunch of trees. What’s the big deal?’ They live there. I think that’s the same attitude here. ‘There’s just sagebrush out there, what’s the point? Oh yeah there’s a powerhouse down there and Initial Point.’ So it’s how people perceive value.”

Hoffman said she finds a lot of value in the area, and she thinks other people will as well.

So, Hoffman is working with the Birds of Prey National Conservation Area Partnership and other groups to increase educational and tourist-inspired events, such as “Meet the Raptors” events. Residents can “meet the raptors,” live birds of prey, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27 at the Kuna Library.

The Snake River Birds of Prey Festival is planned to return to Kuna this summer.

“I think one really important thing to remember about the (national conservation area) is it was designated because the local community decided that it was important and worked together to get it protected,” Hoffman said. “So we have a long history of working with a diverse group of stakeholders in order to manage that area.

“And I think,” she continued, “as new people have come into the valley they don’t always know that history or how deeply the community cared and how hard they worked to get that protection and I think it’s important to know that that area is important to the community.”

Reporter’s Note: This story is part one of a two-part series. Read more details of these events and other recreation opportunities in the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in next week’s edition of the Kuna Melba News.

Alx Stevens is the reporter for Kuna Melba News. Contact her at 208-922-3008 or editor@kunamelba.com.

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