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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Eye on Boise: What’s a view of the Sawtooth Mountains worth?

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area is shown in 2012 near Stanley, Idaho.  (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman)
By Betsy Z. Russell Idaho Press

It’s one of the most iconic views in Idaho: the scenic vista of the Sawtooth Mountains from Stanley, part of a national recreation area and a dark-sky reserve.

But the Idaho Department of Lands is preparing to issue a lease for a giant, 195-foot-tall cell tower on top of a 300-foot ridge smack in the middle of that view, over the objections of the local county commissioners, the mayor of Stanley, the Sawtooth Society, the local search and rescue operation, and hundreds of local residents, business owners and visitors.

Cingular Wireless wants to lease a tiny, 50-by-75-foot plot of state endowment land to build the tower as part of the FirstNet cellular network, which would expand first responder emergency access along with commercial use. They’d pay about $29,000 a year for 20 years for the privilege.

Last week, the state Land Board heard public testimony about the controversial proposal, and all of it was against except for comments from a representative of AT&T, the company that would operate the new cell tower.

Land Board members said nothing at the close of the public testimony; it was on their agenda only as an informational item.

“We didn’t ask questions, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have some before we issue that,” Gov. Brad Little said Thursday morning, while on a tour of public health district offices around the state to talk coronavirus response. “We still have some for the staff. I’ll call ’em on this trip, and say, ‘Don’t issue that permit till we have a chance to digest it.’”

He added, “This is one where there’s a lot of political sensitivity to it.”

Scott Phillips, the new policy and communications chief for the Department of Lands, said late Thursday, “The lease is still being prepared in our real estate services bureau. … We’re preparing documents, getting a lease ready to send out the door.”

Phillips said AT&T was the only one to bid on the lease, which was advertised for public auction after they requested it.

The tiny plot of land is adjacent to an existing lease held by Custer Telephone Cooperative for a 100-foot-high cell tower. When the company put that one in in 2013, it worked with the community and an array of interests to locate and design it for minimal interference with the view while providing the best communications access.

Custer Tel Manager Dennis Thornock told the Land Board, “We’d like the record to show that if the board decides it does not want another communications tower in the Boundary Creek area of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Custer Telephone has the ability to co-locate another provider on our existing tower.”

According to a staff report to the Land Board, the two companies discussed co-locating the FirstNet project on the existing tower rather than building the big new tower, but weren’t able to reach agreement.

“We’re the high bidder on this land, and we’re wanting to move forward with that proposed site-build,” company representative Jonathan “JJ” Hayes told the Land Board. “This is a big, important tower for AT&T, for FirstNet and for public safety within the area.”

Hayes ruffled some feathers on the board when he began his PowerPoint slide presentation by saying, “Some of the information, we do ask that screenshots and photographs are not taken without consent from AT&T.”

Little interrupted, “I’d remind you that this is a public meeting. In a public meeting, everything that’s presented is public, so if you’ve got anything that is not public, you’d better not put it on the screen.”

The FirstNet project is a nationwide one aimed at better coverage for first responders, who would have priority in emergencies on the network over commercial traffic. The state of Idaho has been involved in FirstNet implementation for several years, and Brad Richy of the Idaho Office of Emergency Management told the Land Board that former Gov. Butch Otter “opted in” to the network, prompting discussion of multiple tower sites, both new and existing, around the state.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden asked Richy, “I received information that the state requested this specific location for this tower to be built. And my understanding is that the state requested that it be placed in the vicinity of Redfish Lake, but not just this specific parcel. I just wanted some clarification on that.”

Richy responded, “You are correct. We picked an area that needed coverage. We didn’t pick the specific location.”

Stanley Mayor Stephen Botti told the Land Board, “The potential impact of this cell tower is an important issue for the residents of Stanley and what I call the greater Stanley community in the Sawtooth Valley. The iconic view of the Sawtooth Range in this area, which I’m sure all of you are familiar with, is a reason that most people choose to live and work in this area. And many of them provide services to the visitors who come up here for the same reason.”

The proposed tower would be in “a very prominent location,” the mayor said. “It will be only 6/10 of a mile from State Highway 75, and a mile from the access road to Redfish Lake, which will make it a visual impairment for thousands of tourists who visit Redfish Lake every year. It also will be highly visible to motorists on Highway 75 as they look toward the Sawtooth Mountains.”

The site also is at the heart of the only international dark-sky reserve in the United States, which attracts visitors from throughout the United States and the world. Currently, the new tower isn’t proposed to be lighted, but the mayor and others said the Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing its regulations for such towers, and may require it to be lighted, or painted with distinctive striping, in the future.

“Imposing the lighting request in the future would severely impact night-sky viewing and the almost total lack of light pollution within the reserve,” Botti told the Land Board. “The tower will be located near the central, darkest core area of the reserve. It could hardly be in a worse place.”

Others speaking against the proposal or submitting letters against it included the Custer County Commission; the Sawtooth Society; the Sawtooth Interpretive & Historical Association; the Idaho Conservation League; area businesses; and numerous longtime residents of and visitors to the area.

Attorney Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West told the Land Board that the FirstNet project is subject to federal law, and if the state proceeds with the lease, his organization will file suit for a full National Environmental Policy Act review of its impacts to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, the dark-sky reserve, and other protected values in the scenic region. The group already has submitted a formal petition to FirstNet in that regard.

“I think the common-sense solution here is for the Land Board to request that your staff get together with AT&T and with Custer Tel and look for another alternative,” he said.

Phillips declined to comment on the prospect of a federal lawsuit if the lease moves forward.

“Through our leasing process, we have a public advertising process and we take all our leases to public auction,” he said. “The department would have been very pleased if there had been more than one bidder at this auction. Other interests could have come forward and brought other ideas and made bids.”

He said, “We have a lease, we followed the law, we followed our own processes and there was only one bid.”