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Eye on Boise: Idaho moves ahead with plans for cell tower in middle of iconic Sawtooth Mountains view

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area near Stanley, Idaho, is shown in 2012.  (KTVB 7)
The Sawtooth National Recreation Area near Stanley, Idaho, is shown in 2012. (KTVB 7)
By Betsy Russell Idaho Press

BOISE – Idaho’s state Department of Lands is moving forward with plans to issue a lease for a giant, 195-foot-tall cell tower on top of a 300-foot ridge smack in the middle of one of Idaho’s iconic views, the Sawtooth Mountains as seen from Stanley, even as opposition from an array of interests increases.

In July, the state Land Board heard strong objections to the proposal, both in in-person testimony and written comments from an array of stakeholders, ranging from the mayor of Stanley to the Custer County Commission to the Sawtooth Society, Idaho Conservation League, area businesses, longtime residents and visitors, and more. Land Board members listened, but made no comments; the matter was treated as an information item only.

“It could hardly be in a worse place,” Stanley Mayor Stephen Botti told the Land Board.

A week later, Gov. Brad Little commented, “Obviously, this is one where there’s a lot of political sensitivity to it.” The governor said he had questions about the plan.

In late October, opponents filed a petition requesting a contested case hearing before the Land Board, noting that in September, the Idaho State Historic Preservation Office had officially determined that the proposed tower would result in “adverse effect to historic properties.” The opponents also asked to be placed on the Land Board’s Nov. 17 agenda.

But that agenda came out late last week, and there’s nothing on it about the tower.

“A Land Board hearing is not required to move forward,” Lands Department public information officer Sharla Arledge told the Idaho Press in an email. “The FirstNet lease is not yet finalized. The lease has been provided to the lessee. IDL is awaiting signature as well as required documentation (construction drawings). Once we receive it and it is reviewed to verify accuracy, the lease will be executed by the state.”

She also said the petition for a contested case hearing is “under legal review.”

AT&T was the sole bidder in the auction that the Department of Lands held for the tiny 50-by-75-foot plot of state endowment land atop the ridge; it offered $29,000 a year for 20 years, and the state accepted the bid.

Arledge said the auction, which was requested by AT&T, was noticed and advertised as required from Dec. 9, 2019, to Jan. 10, 2020, including in the Challis Messenger newspaper.

In July, Scott Phillips, policy and communications chief for the Department of Lands, 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.”

“We followed the law, we followed our own processes and there was only one bid,” he said.

When it comes to state endowment land, the Land Board is required by the Idaho Constitution to manage the land for the maximum long-term financial return to the endowment’s beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state’s K-12 public schools. No other considerations are legally supposed to come into play.

Jonathan Oppenheimer, external relations director for the Idaho Conservation League, said he was disappointed the department hadn’t responded to the petition for a contested case hearing, and said, “It’s disappointing that the Land Board has been unwilling to consider alternatives here, when alternatives do realistically exist.”

The plot of land is adjacent to an existing lease held by Custer Telephone Cooperative for an existing 100-foot-high cell tower, which was installed in 2013 after much community collaboration. The local firm told the Land Board it was willing to let AT&T co-locate on its tower rather than build the big new one, but the two firms weren’t able to reach agreement.

“We’re the high bidder,” AT&T representative Jonathan “JJ” Hayes told the Land Board in July.

Oppenheimer said if the lease goes forward, AT&T still would need to apply for federal approval under a National Environmental Policy Act review process that requires public comment; that’s part of the nationwide FirstNet communications project that AT&T’s tower would be part of. Opponents already have promised to file a federal lawsuit if the project moves forward. FirstNet is a licensee of the Federal Communications Commission.

Said Oppenheimer, “If we can’t protect the scenic views above Redfish Lake in the Sawtooths, what can we do as a state?”

I requested on-the-record comments from three state Land Board members last week, but they declined. Scott Graf, spokesman for Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, said, “Based on the threat of potential litigation surrounding this matter, our office will refrain from making comment at this point.”

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