McCall environmentalist gave lasting gifts of open space

By Steve Stuebner | 25 July 2022 | Idaho Press

A parcel of 51.5 acres of open space on Lake Fork Creek, south of McCall, was donated by the late Nelle Tobias to the Idaho Foundation for Parks and Lands in 1982. Image courtesy of Steve Stuebner.

This is the sixth in a series of 12 articles about 50-year history of the Idaho Foundation for Parks and Lands.

The late Nelle Tobias, a long-time environmental activist in McCall, played an important role in advocating for the creation of the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, driving down to Boise to attend weekly strategy meetings with conservation legends like Ted Trueblood, Ernie Day, Bruce Bowler, Jerry Jayne, Ken Robison and Dennis Baird. This group of committed people from all corners of Idaho comprised the core of River of No Return Wilderness Council.

Tobias also was a charter member of the Idaho Conservation League, formed in 1973.

“She might have been the most committed person I knew about the value of wilderness to protect the wildflowers, the watershed and the water quality. She felt that down to the soles of her feet,” says Jeff Fereday, the second executive director of ICL who worked closely with Tobias for many years.

“She cared about everything — the birds, the insects, the soil, the watershed,” adds Kay Hummel, a lifelong conservationist in her own right who is married to Fereday. They both treasured a long friendship with Tobias.

Fereday points out that Tobias was a quiet person who advocated for wilderness through attending strategy meetings, penning a razor-sharp guest opinion piece or writing a check to ICL. She kept a low profile. But when she spoke, people listened, and her words had impact.

Tobias would have been 74 when the Frank Church Wilderness was protected by Congress in 1980. She’d been a tireless advocate for the largest national forest wilderness in the lower 48, and the dream of the whole River of No Return Wilderness Council and ICL had come true!

Two years later, Tobias made a lasting gift of 51.5 acres of land adjacent to Lake Fork Creek, south of McCall, to the Idaho Foundation for Parks and Lands. She wanted the beautiful property to be protected as open space forever, and she put her trust in the Foundation to carry out her wishes. The property was appraised at $110,000 at the time.

In this month’s article on the Foundation, we’re focusing on land gifts provided to the Foundation in the greater McCall area, including the Tobias property on Lake Fork Creek.

Thirty years later, McCall locals still appreciate that the Tobias open space property is being maintained as a natural area in perpetuity to maintain the rural, pastoral character of the setting along Elo Road on the east side of Long Valley. Tobias placed a conservation easement on the property to ensure that no development occurred.

Bethine Church and Nelle Tobias. Nelle was given an award by the Idaho Conservation League in 1986 for her efforts in conservation. Photo courtesy of Diane Ronayne.

“Nelle was truly a visionary when it came to conservation over the long term,” says David Simmonds, longtime McCall resident and chair of the Big Payette Water Quality Council. “Her mission — she really was on a self-actuated mission — was to leave the awesome world around her a better place than she found it.

“I think she was troubled by our failure to live and plan sustainably, whether that was public forest lands, rivers, lakes or communities. She fought for conservation in the public sphere, but more than just advocacy, she put her own material resources on the line in a selfless way. Conserving a piece of Lake Fork Creek was one thing she could do, so she just did it. She lived her values. Nelle has always been an inspiration to those who knew her, myself included,” Simmonds says.

Tobias was a native Idahoan and a genuine pioneer in many ways. She was born in 1906 and grew up on her family’s homestead in the Peaceful Valley, near the Snake River. Later, her family moved to Nampa, where Tobias rode horseback to school, graduating from Nampa High School in 1924.

She attended the College of Idaho, Oregon State University and Cornell University, finally graduating from C of I with a degree in landscape architecture. She worked for the National Park Service in San Francisco before moving to McCall in 1938.

Tobias visited McCall for the first time in 1911, traveling to the then-remote mountain outpost via horse and buggy with her parents. She would have been 5 years old at the time. Her parents had the foresight to buy property in McCall very early on, in 1911. They purchased some waterfront property on Payette Lake near the location of the McCall fish hatchery.

Tobias would later develop that property into clean, affordable cabins for tourists to stay in while they visited McCall. They were called the “Edgewater Cabins.”

Tobias also was very active in assisting the Long Valley Preservation Society with restoring and preserving the historic town of Roseberry.

“From very early on, she was one of our most stalwart supporters,” said Frank Eld, an original board member of the Long Valley Preservation Society.

Nelle Tobias donated the property used for the Summer Music Festival in Roseberry to the Long Valley Preservation Society years ago. This is yet another little known gesture of her generosity. photo courtesy Fred Eld.

In the early 1900s, Roseberry was becoming a bustling little town. “By the spring of 1905, the town of Roseberry was growing, complete with a hotel, two black smith shops, two stores, a restaurant, butcher shop, logging mill and a creamery destined to be the largest in Long Valley,” according to the Long Valley Preservation Society web site.

Ten years later, “the Pacific, Idaho and Northern Railroad line traveled through Long Valley two miles west of the town of Roseberry. Homes and businesses were moved to intersect the rail line at this new location, creating the new town of Donnelly,” the web site reports. “Roseberry became a semi-ghost town with a few sturdy structures and the remnant population.”

Later on, efforts by the Long Valley Preservation Society, beginning in 1973, have restored Roseberry with the Valley County Museum, the Tobias Research Center, a general store and several historic Finnish buildings that were physically moved to the location. A finely crafted red barn was one of the structures moved to the Roseberry town site; that property has served as the location and stage backdrop for the popular Summer Music Festival at Roseberry, held each year in July.

Eld notes that Nelle Tobias purchased the land where the red barn sits today and donated it to the Long Valley Preservation Society. Tobias did not want to call attention to the gift of land at the time, but more than 15 years after her death in 2005, it’s appropriate to let people know about it, Eld said.

“She did not want to call attention to herself at all; she wanted no accolades,” he said. “This is the first time that it’s been made public. She deserves the credit.”

Nelle Tobias in front of the Roseberry research Center. Photo courtesy Fred Eld.

A wildflower named for Nelle Tobias

An avid hiker and backpacker, Tobias used to take many hikes into the backcountry surrounding the McCall area. One of her favorite areas was Lava Butte Lake, northwest of McCall, and another was known as “The Pinnacles” overlooking the headwaters of Big Creek and Monumental Creek.

About 40 years ago, a wildflower was named after her. It’s called “Tobias Saxifrage” or the scientific name, Saxifraga bryophora var. tobiasae. The plant lives on high mountain slopes in the 8,000-foot range that divide French Creek, Fisher Creek and Hazard Creek, north of McCall.

Tobias showed a sample of the wildflower to her friend, Pat Packard, a C of I botany professor, now retired, who found it to be unique. Packard published this discovery in the scientific literature in 1981, officially naming it in honor of Nelle Tobias. It is a rare species endemic to the Salmon River Mountains in Central Idaho.

Tobias Saxifrage (or Saxifraga bryophora var. tobiasae) was named in Nelle Tobias’ honor. Photo courtesy Idaho Dept. Fish and Game.

“It’s a cute little plant,” says Bob Moseley, a retired botanist from Boise who conducted the first conservation surveys for the species in 1989. “It is a unique element of Idaho’s biodiversity and wonderful that it’s named after Nelle as a tribute to her conservation legacy in the state.”

Patty Hovdey, a fifth-generation Long Valley resident, former Olympic alpine skier and co-owner of Hometown Sports, met Tobias through her grandmother, Pearl Boydstun. Both of them were gardeners.

Hovdey remembers going backpacking with Tobias on Big Creek to go look for Native American pictographs on rock walls. They hiked for several days to reach the pictograph site. Tobias brought some clear plastic with her and some markers to trace the ancient rock art so she could make a weaving of the pictographs later.

“I helped her trace the pictographs,” Hovdey says. “That was kind of a challenge because both of us are really short.”

She remembers waking up in the middle of the night, sleeping under the stars under a full moon, and Tobias had been awoken by a number of hooting owls. “She was sitting up, talking to the owls,” Hovdey says. “And they were answering her. It went on for a quite a while. That was a really special moment.”

Fereday and Hummel remember seeing Tobias’ weavings hanging in her home, depicting Native American pictographs and petroglyphs. In her later years, she was working on a master’s degree about the Native American rock inscriptions.

“She captured the images and turned them into curtains in her house, that was really original and cool to see,” Fereday said.

He and Kay liked to visit her frequently when visiting McCall. Back in the day, when their two boys were at a young age, they wanted them to meet Tobias and learn from her wisdom. “She was a friend, of course, but more than that, she was kind of an oracle, an icon, a touchstone for us,” Fereday said. “It was just really cool to be at her house and property, and we wanted our boys to experience that.”

Tobias lived to be almost to 99 years old. She died just 11 days short of her 100th birthday in 2005. Upon her death, she gave away all of her money to a variety of nonprofit organizations, including ICL, the Long Valley Preservation Society, and the Fund for Idaho.

There is still one piece of unfinished business. McCall locals would like to name a mountain peak after her, Simmonds says.

“A few friends who knew her are pursuing a geographic place name in her memory and honor,” he says. “There’s an unnamed peak, the highest point at the head of French Creek, east of Fisher Creek Saddle, and just southwest of Black Tip mountain, that seems appropriate. The name “Tobias Point” is available and would be a fitting tribute. No one who gave so much toward conservation of the world around us should be forgotten, especially not Nelle Tobias.”

Steve Stuebner and his partner Wendy Wilson received the Nelle Tobias Award for Environmental Integrity by the Fund for Idaho in 2014.