CALDWELL — In the late 1980s, abandoned homesteads and heaps of trash lined a stretch of bank along the Snake River that once served as the winter home for Paiute Indian Tribe members who marked their stay by etching images on dozens of basalt boulders.
About that same time, Canyon County Parks, Cultural and Natural Resources Director Tom Bicak was thinking about how to transform and preserve the riverfront parcel 10 miles south of Melba. Bicak realized the value of the ancient etchings, known as petroglyphs, along with the variety of other artifacts found at the site. To him, it was all a cultural and archaeological resource worthy of protection and source of education.
“I recognized it right away as an academic resource rather than just a recreational resource,” Bicak said of the property, which is now the home of Celebration Park, one of the gems of the Canyon County park system. “It was more of a matter of responsibility.”
In the early stages of development, the public and county leaders harbored hesitations about building a park in the desert. But eventually, the Canyon County commissioners agreed, on condition, Bicak said with a grin, that he didn’t ask for any money.
“It wasn’t discouraging really,” he said. “But I also knew there were lots of grant opportunities out there. There’s the challenge: You just start writing grants and build what you can as the money becomes available.”
Bicak, 64, who has worked on improving Celebration Park nearly his entire career, is retiring in May, bringing to an end a nearly 30-year career with the county. Besides creating what became Idaho’s only archeological park, he helped create eight more parks in Canyon County. On Friday, the county is throwing a retirement party for Bicak at — where else? — Celebration Park.
After years of Bicak expanding and upgrading the park and trying to prove its value, county officials ultimately agreed to help support its operation. In this year’s $900,000 parks and waterways budget, he estimates that about $225,000 will be used to support Celebration Park. But along the way, Bicak estimates that he applied for and won hundreds of grants to sustain the park and help pay for a new museum that opened on site last year.
The support of the public is clear. Nearly three decades after the park opened, visitation has reached about 80,000 per year, according to Kathy Kershner, deputy director for Canyon County Parks, Recreation and Waterways. Visitors pursue a range of activities, both recreational — hiking, fishing and camping — and educational, including field trips and workshops to learn about the region’s former inhabitants and geology.
When Bicak first began working for the county in the mid-1980s as a seasonal marine deputy, performing boat inspections on Lake Lowell, there was only one park in the county parks system. Now there are nine, due in no small part to Bicak’s pioneering vision to build parks.
“I have that builders gene,” he said. “You’re just uncomfortable unless you’re building something or creating something.”
After Bicak told then-Parks Director Don Parsons that he wanted to build parks, he was hired full time at the parks department as the outdoor recreation planner, leaving his former job as an assistant professor of physiology at the College of Idaho.
Bicak was promoted to parks director in 2005. During his tenure, he helped pave the way for the creation of Jubilee Park and Wilson Springs, among others. He also helped improve and expand recreational opportunities at Lake Lowell.
“It’s a tradition in our area to recreate at Lake Lowell,” he said, adding that inhabitants as far back as the early 20th century enjoyed the benefits of the lake and surrounding area.
But the conditions of the boat ramps and facilities around Lake Lowell weren’t always ideal, according to Archie Yamamoto, former chairman of the county’s Waterway Commission. The commission served as a liaison between the public and the Canyon County commissioners on improving recreational access to waterways.
Yamamoto said that in the early days of Bicak’s career at the parks, the facilities around the lake “needed attention.”
Bicak brought the board ideas and somehow managed to seamlessly execute follow through, Yamamoto said, including building boat docks that were placed around the lake. He also helped improve the lower dam recreation area through planting grass and installing picnic tables.
The county has been fortunate to have someone who could get the job done in a cost-effective manner, Yamamoto said. He described Bicak as a “master in writing grants and obtaining state and federal monies” for improvement projects.
“Tom was a really gifted young fellow that could have been successful at any field that he chose,” Yamamoto said. “He chose the love of his life, which was parks and waterways.”
Bicak has been sharing that passion with outdoor recreation planner Nicki Schwend, whom he has been mentoring in preparation of her taking over the director position in May. She submitted a 10-year plan to the commissioners earlier this month.
Even though Bicak is retiring, he doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon. He’s considering going back to school at Boise State University this fall. He is also starting a consulting company that will help write grants for parks and other institutions seeking to improve access for those with physical disabilities.
“I’ll keep pretty busy,” he said. “Unless I have some project going I don’t feel good. That probably explains a lot.”