The Camas Prairie
A rich past and an uncertain future
Photography: Heather King and Nancy Farese
(page 3 of 3)
A Questionable Future
Lena Rice came to the prairie in the early 1900s. Her parents operated Jones and Mosier General Store. She attended freshman year high school at the local two-room schoolhouse in Hill City. Her son, a fourth-generation farmer, now runs a family alfalfa operation. Rice co-authored a book on the history of the prairie with Nan Reedy and now chairs “The Caboose,” a tourist and visitor information center in Fairfield. At 90, Rice is a testament to the fortitude of the early settlers. She projects vitality. Her eyes are bright, her gait strong and her memory sharp. Her perspective on the prairie is telling: “The area is changing. It used to be that we knew everyone. Nowadays, we don’t.”
Rice’s observation highlights an underlying shift that is barely visible to those of us that just pass through. Although the absolute population of the prairie has changed little over the past 50 years, its composition has evolved. The “prairie pedigree”—families with generations of history on the Camas—still reigns strong, but there is a significant population of newcomers and part-timers. Retirees, second homeowners, and Wood River residents seeking solace have migrated into the area. According to city officials, more than 50 percent of the prairie land has been purchased by “outsiders.” As a result, there has been tremendous speculation and posturing among locals, county and city officials and developers about “the Camas land rush.”
David Hanks is the mayor of Fairfield. He moved to the area from Salt Lake City in 1994. Hanks is also president of High Country Fusion. His company supplies industrial piping systems for natural gas recovery and delivery throughout the U.S. and the world. They have just completed a large installation at a copper smelter in Indonesia. With 45 employees, he is the county’s largest private employer.
Hanks is a small man with a big presence. He projects focused intent and a commitment to do well by his adopted hometown. As he sees it, a primary challenge is to revive the economy, yet maintain the integrity of the area. Growth and development would ideally be centered in and around the current towns, leaving the agricultural landscape intact. Economic boosts could come in the form of Soldier Mountain’s expansion, and/or a new airport. His vision calls for a revitalization of downtown Fairfield—with a youth center, restaurants for locals and visitors, and a movie theatre. His greatest concern is that the economy of the Camas Prairie is not self-sustaining and the area will become a bedroom community for the Wood River Valley. The concern is real. By his estimates, half of Fairfield’s residents now commute to work in the Wood River Valley.
County officials and long-time residents alike recognize that it is a matter of time before real growth sweeps the prairie. County and city officials have been working to prepare for the future. Yet, their effort to plan is fraught with challenges. Officials must balance economic, community, conservation and a range of strong individual interests—not an easy task for a place that has been sparsely populated and retains the unfettered spirit of the pioneering West. The intent has been to center development around the townsites, Fairfield in particular, and to protect the prairie’s agricultural tradition. Many residents and officials feel that the current rezoning ordinances and long-range plan do not provide sufficient direction and controls.
Judging by the queue of proposed projects, efforts to encourage development in and around existing townsites are not yet taking hold. Fairfield’s Planning and Zoning (P&Z) commissioners instituted a moratorium on new building permits for 18 months. Once the moratorium expired, applications for new subdivisions poured into Camas County’s P&Z office. Proposals ranged in size from four to 50 homesites. Most of these new developments are in outlying areas, and not in Fairfield’s city limits. As might be expected, much of the early development has encroached from the east, from the Wood River area. Two significant subdivisions are just off Highway 20, east of Fairfield: Spring Creek Ranch has more than 500 homesites and Camas Creek Phase I development has another 50. Critics are concerned that this early growth in scattered corners of the prairie will set a stage for sprawl. Another small development of four homes has been proposed, bordering the Centennial Marsh. In the case of the marsh project, opponents, including Idaho Fish and Game, worry that vital habitat and historical areas will be violated.
Preserve the Camas Prairie is a 50-member organization that formed in approximately 2004 in opposition to the proposed Moonstone Ranch site for the airport. Its charter has since expanded. “It is our goal to preserve the quality of the environment and watchdog land use issues,” says Bob Rodman, one of the group’s three directors. Preserve the Camas acknowledges that growth is needed and inevitable. The organization’s primary concern is that the current plan will not effectively manage the growth. Even a local developer concedes: “I am afraid we are going to build a prairie ghetto.”
Another potentially significant factor will be the timing and nature of a Soldier Mountain Ski Area expansion and any associated airport. The relocation of the Hailey airport remains an open issue; the FAA is conducting a three-year reevaluation of all proposed sites. Whether or not the Camas Prairie is the chosen site for a new Hailey airport, the developers behind Soldier are keen to build an airport locally.
What happens to the prairie will impact the Wood River Valley. The prairie is a unique gateway into the Valley. Scenically and practically, it would be a tremendously different experience to drive 80 miles of subdivisions along Highway 20, rather than 80 miles of open prairie en route to Boise. The important historic, scenic and wildlife sites in the prairie are integrally linked to our own heritage and ecosystems. If Wood River Valley residents allow these to be carelessly unearthed, the whole region stands to lose important resources and legacy. If neighboring counties don’t encourage proactive planning, the prairie could become a massive development. Alternatively, if the prairie becomes a vibrant area—balancing its beauty, agricultural tradition and history with smart growth and expanded recreational access, it could be a wonderful complement to the Wood River Valley. All would enjoy amber waves of grain on the prairie and purple mountains’ majesty. Wood River residents are, in large part, the force that is driving change and therefore should actively and responsibly participate in shaping that direction, say the area’s advocates.
The Prairie’s Foundation
It is dusk on the day of the harvest. A firepit in the Fairfield community fairgrounds roasts the camas bulbs as the Shoshone and Bannock have done for centuries. When it is time, John Henry, together with his fellow tribesmen and the local town leaders, carefully open the hot pit and offer tastes of the roasted bulbs to the crowd that has gathered. They look like potatoes, and for the unfamiliar, they taste like a potato overcooked and in need of salt.
The drumming begins. Led by Sho-Ban elders, tribal dancers parade around the ring to celebrate the harvest. Feathers, bells and beadwork adorn heads, dress, and shoes. Local residents, farmers and visitors from Boise and Wood River, watch, clap, chant and join in the dance. These homecoming festivities are rooted in tribal tradition, but embrace the Camas Prairie of today. Hopefully, the Camas of tomorrow will so gracefully bridge the present with the past that the bounty of the prairie will be there for centuries to come.
Heather King is a part-time Hailey resident, a Board member of the Wood River Land Trust, a photo documentary producer and author of a trade paperback.