Celebrate The Urban Wildnerness Right Where You Live

Throughout the country there are revitalization efforts to bring back to life long-neglected urban wild areas.
The Snake River in Twin Falls, Idaho.

LaMar Orton apologizes. The soft-spoken, sprightly 71-year-old has interrupted himself again to curiously pause and inspect—a wild rose, the symmetry of the surrounding cliffs, a puncture vine along the trail, a healthy specimen of poison ivy.

Walking through Rock Creek Canyon, Orton remembers his days as a city planner when this urban canyon was full of trash: junked autos, defunct washing machines, and tons of discarded tires and other refuse. “The idea that these wild areas are some place to dump stuff off has been around for a long time,” he says, shaking his head.

Orton also knows Rock Creek’s waters, which begin in the hills south of Twin Falls, pass through a smattering of farms, cattle ranches, and recreation areas, wind through the city and Rock Creek Park, and eventually empty into the Snake River. All this exists just blocks from the commercial center of downtown Twin Falls. “One reason I became enchanted with this place is that downtown is up there,” Orton explains, pointing to the canyon rim above, “but it is a totally different feel down here.”

To be inside Rock Creek Canyon is to hear birds, not traffic—it is to feel distinctly elsewhere. Three unmarked entrances and just one kitschy wagon-wheel sign mark Rock Creek’s walking trail and connected park below. Eighty-foot-deep basalt canyon walls frame the view of the 4-mile-long paved trail system, running mostly along the creek under a canopy of Russian olive, elm, ash, and cottonwood trees. Through this jagged swath of canyon cutting through southern Idaho’s Twin Falls County run mule deer, raccoons, Northern flickers, jays, Western tanagers, and yellow-bellied marmots.

While the initial cleanup efforts in the 1970s left the canyon looking pristine, upon closer scrutiny, Rock Creek Canyon tells a far different story. Rock Creek is emblematic of a common environmental problem: an urban wild space neglected by local residents who advocate protecting such spaces elsewhere. Here in Twin Falls, many people ignore Rock Creek but are eager to drive 40 miles south to the Shoshone Basin region or 75 miles north to the Sun Valley area for hiking, mountain biking, and skiing.

Revitalization efforts to bring about change in neglected urban wild areas, watersheds in particular, can be seen throughout the country. The Spokane River, running directly through Spokane, Washington, still has some of the highest levels of pollution in the state, despite the addition of the beautiful Riverfront Park. Frankford Creek in Philadelphia suffers from outdated sewer pipes and storm water overflow, but the city is undergoing a long-term plan to broadly improve its infrastructure. And the Patapsco River in Baltimore is one of several waterways where volunteers are encouraged to participate in “Canoe and Scoop” days to help clean up the impaired Chesapeake Watershed. Then there is the famous Los Angeles River, where an ambitious comprehensive plan exists to remove concrete channels and restore the natural riparian areas running through the city.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has declared Rock Creek “impaired,” meaning its water is too polluted for “beneficial” uses, such as swimming and fishing. Runoff from agriculture upstream combines with the effects of recreational use, industrial effluent, and a number of unmapped septic systems discharging directly to the creek. Graffiti regularly appears on the foundations of the three bridges spanning the canyon, and trash lingers under Old Towne Bridge, a throwback to the days of Rock Creek as city dump. Many residents call the canyon a “working creek.”

So when it comes time to get outdoors, many of those same residents head out of town.  

Erica Pfister and family have been traveling to the Sun Valley area for the past six years to hike, bike, and ski. “It’s just so accessible,” Pfister explains. The area has plenty of trails, natural beauty, and restaurant options, she adds, which makes the more-than-hour-long drive north worth it. “It’s so pretty up there, and you can see wildlife—you feel like you really are in the middle of nature,” she says.

According to The Nature Conservancy in Idaho, each year an estimated 300 to 500 residents of the Twin Falls area travel the roughly 60 miles to Silver Creek Preserve, a pristine location with Nature Conservancy protection and some of the most coveted fishing waters in the United States. During the summer months, heavy traffic out of Twin Falls clogs the roads to the Shoshone Basin and the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness.

This dichotomy is one that noted environmental historian William Cronon discusses in his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness.” Cronon takes issue with wilderness as a human construct, resulting in a conceptual divide between an idealized, distant wilderness and other wild spaces such as those existing in communities and backyards.

As long as wilderness is an ideal that exists someplace else, residents may feel absolved of responsibility to steward the wild spaces within their own communities. In Twin Falls, industrious visionaries in the late 1880s transformed the southern Idaho desert into its regional nickname, the Magic Valley. Until 1960, Rock Creek Canyon served as a city sewer run, emptying directly into the Snake River. Factories also moved in, dumping post-production effluent into the creek. Three factories remain on the canyon rim: one meat processing plant and two vegetable/potato processors. These factories cement a connection between business and creek, a familiar story associated with American industrial expansion.

However, changes may be on the horizon for Rock Creek Canyon. The Magic Valley Trail Enhancement Committee (MaVTEC), organized in 2007, has been working to create trails and connect existing ones throughout the area. With the group’s primary goal of the Snake River Canyon Rim Trail almost complete, director Jaime Tigue says efforts will shift toward Rock Creek Canyon, enhancing trail usability while raising public awareness and interest.

“Rock Creek has been on our radar for a long time,” says Tigue. “It’s such an important asset to this community that often gets overlooked.” MaVTEC is exploring options for purchasing privately owned property that separates two current Rock Creek Canyon trails. The committee hopes to join the trails, eventually connecting them with the now separate Snake River Canyon Rim Trail.

MaVTEC’s work represents a potential paradigm shift: a community focusing on utilizing, preserving, and enjoying the natural spaces within its urban environment. Dayna Gross, senior conservation manager for The Nature Conservancy in Idaho, says this shift is part of the organization’s new mission—working with natural urban areas while embodying “respect for people, communities, and cultures.” Gross sees this hybrid of wild spaces and humanity as a new vision—conservation that acknowledges a broader definition of preservation, including the wild spaces we live within, in addition to those “out there.”

Restoring Rock Creek Canyon requires altering community perceptions and attitudes. It also raises the question: Can a place shake its history? This call for change is universal—community neighbors must begin looking deeply at the core values framing everyday lives. As nurturing wild urban spaces becomes part of the community fabric, the separation between the natural and human-made may begin to dissolve, and a new definition of progress, prosperity, and preservation may emerge. Acting in this consciousness today is to begin—right exactly where we find ourselves.

Shelley McEuen wrote this article for Gender Justice, the Summer 2016 issue of YES! Magazine. Shelley is an English professor at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. She is pursuing a doctorate in ecocriticism and narrative theory.

See also:
Setting Aside Half The Earth For ‘Rewilding’: The Ethical Dimension
16 Ways to Make Your Neighborhood Safer, Greener and Fun