A 195-foot-tall communications tower is planned to be built on a ridge just west of the Sawtooth Hatchery in the Sawtooth Valley, 10 miles south of Stanley.
The tower will be part of the First Responder Network, known as FirstNet. The system was created by a federal law in 2012 in response to the 9/11 Commission Report in 2004, which identified gaps in emergency communications and recommended a nationwide network for law enforcement, fire and emergency medical personnel communications. In March 2017, FirstNet awarded a 25-year contract to AT&T to create the system.
The tower would be built on state Endowment Trust Land within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area managed by the Idaho Department of Lands. Department spokeswoman Sharla Arledge said the proposal is for a 20-year lease of about one acre at $29,851 per year, with revenue going to support Idaho’s public schools.
Endowment Trust Land was granted to states by the federal government at statehood. The Idaho Constitution mandates that endowment lands be managed to secure maximum long-term financial return.
An advertisement to the public of an auction for the proposed lease site was run in the Challis Messenger and on the department’s website for four weeks beginning Dec. 9. Arledge said no other applications were received and the lease was awarded to New Cingular Wireless. Arledge said last week that a lease was being drafted by the Idaho Attorney General’s Office.
The location is about 100 feet from an existing Custer Telephone Cooperative communication tower, also on leased state land. Arledge said that with an existing tower in the vicinity, the department encouraged AT&T and the current lessee to explore the possibility of co-locating on the existing tower. However, she said, AT&T reported that the parties could not agree on a deal.
According to an email from department Lands Resource Supervisor Trevor George sent to a local resident who inquired about the tower, AT&T will be allowed to use it for commercial purposes, but first responder use will always take priority.
Arledge said AT&T said it chose the site due to its location on a ridge. She said a 195-foot tower in this location will allow for the proper angle to provide first responder coverage across Redfish Lake if there is an emergency there, and because it’s close enough to Stanley to relay with a tower there. She said AT&T considered three sites and determined that this location provided the best options for FirstNet’s needs.
Arledge said the Department of Lands has no legal responsibility to seek public comments on applications for the lease of Endowment Trust Land.
“Endowment land does not have multiple use requirements that federal lands must consider,” she said. “IDL’s mandate is its fiduciary responsibility to the endowment beneficiary as required by Idaho’s Constitution. IDL tries to work with local entities where we are able, as long as it does not affect the financial return for the beneficiary.”
A much more rigorous process would be involved if the proposal were for a tower on federal land within the SNRA.
According to SNRA Area Ranger Kirk Flannigan, if the Sawtooth National Forest received a proposal to build an approximately 200-foot-tall tower on federal land within the SNRA, it would be reviewed by specialists (wildlife, fish, etc.) who would analyze it against a “special uses screening and processing checklist.”
“If the proposal does not conflict with the checklist or raise any major red flags with the specialist, then we would start to develop a more refined proposed action and potential alternatives,” Flannigan said. “That action would then be scoped with the public, elected officials, stakeholders and the tribes. Feedback from those groups would help further refine the proposed action, which would then be formally analyzed by our specialists, or cause us to reconsider the proposal in its entirety.”
Under the federal law that established the SNRA in 1972, it is to be administered in such a way as to “best provide … the conservation and development of scenic, natural, historic, pastoral, wildlife, and other values. …”
“[G]iven those factors, plus others, a proposal for a 200-foot tower would need to be very well thought out, and designed and located to mitigate impacts against those resources and values,” Flannigan said.
He said the only communications tower on federal land in the SNRA is a small one near Galena Summit operated by Midvale Telephone. That tower is “really not visible,” he said.
He said more typical taller cell towers are common on national forests elsewhere.
In an email to the Department of Lands, Hailey resident Mark Moulton noted that the new tower will be three times the height of the forest it resides within, and be silhouetted against Sawtooth peaks. Moulton said the new tower will be almost twice as tall as the existing 100-foot tower, and that the difference will all be exposed above the trees—five times more than is showing with the current tower.
Sawtooth Society Executive Director Kathryn Grohusky said her organization’s board of directors sent a letter to the Department of Lands expressing its opposition to a lease with AT&T at this time. Grohusky said the Sawtooth Society is advocating that before deciding on whether to grant a lease, the department conduct a visual-impact simulation, create a map of the expected reach of signals from the tower, consider alternative locations and collect public input.
Josh Johnson, central Idaho conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League, also said his organization opposes the lease at this time.
“Although enhanced communications for first responders is an important function, the specific design and location of this tower would degrade treasured views and the core values of the SNRA,” the ICL said in an emailed statement. “ICL encourages the Idaho Department of Lands to withhold approval of this lease and find ways for IDL and the applicant to work together with the public and other agencies in the community to find a more appropriate solution.”