Pocatello, the Portneuf Valley and progress

By Kay Merriam

Pocatello is situated amidst splendid natural beauty. But, as with many things in our lives, the value of that beauty may not be recognized until it is gone. Unfortunately, residents often pay little attention when asked for input as to our natural assets. Oh, yes, we complain afterwards, but not until the deed is done.
For example, Pocatello was faced with one decision about progress in the late 1960s when the Army Corps of Engineers proposed confining the badly behaving Portneuf River so it would not flood. Now, the loss of the idyllic riverside amenities we could have had is mourned while many try to figure out how to remedy the situation.
No matter that it was recommended the property along the river could be purchased for less than what the channel would cost. No matter that we could have a river setting which would enhance this town. No matter that Boise and Idaho Falls used economics and aesthetics in their assessments of river frontage. Instead, we opted for our local definition of progress.
Here we are, 40 years later, preparing to witness the construction of a crossover from Bannock Highway to South Fifth Avenue. It will start by a church south of Leo Lane and end just north of the Idaho Transportation Department on South Fifth.
When the decision was made for this crossover, responsibility for it was laid upon a single accident: the death of a mother and her young son at the Cheyenne crossing. Soon after, arms were installed to stop traffic when trains go through. In the last 43 years, that was the only accident reported. Oh, yes, sometimes the trains stop, forcing automobiles to turn around and go the other way or sit there for awhile.
Other reasons given for building this mile long crossover relate to development. And yet, development, when it does take place, will be farther down the valley. Then, a bottle neck could be created at the Bannock Highway end of the crossover if going to work coincides with taking children to Indian Hills School
There are many more who see the crossover as destruction of an excellent example of our sagebrush steppe that should be protected as open space. Regardless, public input has not blocked this example of progress.
It is difficult to envision the scale and size of the finished product. We are facing a mile long structure that will arch over the river, railroad tracks, basalt cliff and Interstate 15. In some places it will rise 30 feet into the sky (the height of a three story building). In other places it will be 17 feet high to accommodate the I-15 crossing.
Google “Pocatello crossover project” for written descriptions of the crossover site. While the assessment of the project is required to address endangered species, there is much more there than “noxious weeds, cheat grass, and sagebrush.” A few notable examples are the phlox that are now blooming, the flax and cactus flowers that will appear later, and the star flowers and lemonade sumac that bloomed earlier along the AMI trail from the Kirkham trailhead.
The report states there are “…no formally recognized areas of scenic beauty,” but it would be difficult to convince those who appreciate this valley that the collapsed lava tube is not a stand alone thing of beauty. That small canyon also shelters doves and kestrels, juniper, sage, rabbit brush and the seasonal bright yellow blazing star. And there is more to please the eye, satisfy the soul and illustrate how we as a community prize the natural features of our valley.
The report also mentions few birds. But sandhill cranes do their mating dances there, meadowlarks declare spring has arrived as they define their territories, and bufflehead ducks race upstream submerged, only to pop up and float down again. These birds may not be endangered, but they are feasts for the senses and additions to the natural scene.
The area is a unique classroom. Everything mentioned above provides only a glimpse at the learning opportunities for children and adults alike. And we have received these gifts through location and chance, not tax levies.
Should we protect, use, appreciate and encourage others to come and visit them?  Or, should we replace them with man-made structures that we can complain about later?
There are examples throughout our country of how a lack of foresight has taken beautiful areas based on questionable analyses. But there are many, many other examples of how towns no bigger than Pocatello have had the vision to protect their naturally beautiful assets.
Pocatello is located in a unique valley. And yet, we forget that its beauty needs protection, nurturance and appreciation. From a purely practical perspective, it has economic value through its power to encourage people to move here and stay.
In addition to its plant and animal species, this outstanding example of basalt, with its cliffs and stretches of surface matter, illustrates the creative process in which soils form with the help of lichen, alga and mosses. All of that can easily compare with desert nature parks and exhibits in other urban areas which were developed using tons of tax money. And, here we have it already set up for our use and appreciation.
The area is used by many. At any time of the day, there are at least two to six cars parked at either end of the AMI trail. Joggers, dog walkers, bikers and strolling family groups spill forth to make use of the trail and take in the spectacular views in all directions.
An electric eye counter at either end could have established the numbers of trail users. However, with the crossover, users will be compelled to use a 150 foot culvert to go under the crossover. Do people like walking through long tunnels? You have all seen the Center Street pedestrian tunnel.
So, we watch an area that should be treasured and maintained as open space forever changed as was the Portneuf River over 40 years ago. And, once more we can prepare ourselves for lamenting the loss of a very large part of the beauty within our city limits.
Yes, we did have an opportunity for input. Yes, we were asked for our opinion about the crossover. No, we may not have understood the magnitude of the structure and the damage to an area that truly is “a recognized area of scenic beauty.” Maybe now we will stop and think.
Is it too late? Many will say yes, sadly adding that what we think is of no value. Others will maintain that saving 10 minutes on a trip into town is worth the approximately $17 million allocated for this project. Both judgments need to be tested.
Think of the other overpasses situated to the north including Benton Street, Gould Street and Quinn. Every one of them was erected in an area that already had the heavy boot print of progress laid upon it.  So is our goal to create the same situation in the southern part of our valley?
Considering the natural assets that have made this valley unique, maybe we should stop before destroying yet another aspect of that uniqueness. On the other hand, maybe we should just get ready to lament the loss of another significant natural asset and reflect upon the joy of an extra 10 minutes saved.

Dr. Kay Merriam taught natural science strategies for the U.S. Forest Service, was on the Bannock County Planning Commission from 1984 to 1999, and has lived in Pocatello since 1964.