Sawtooth Search and Rescue has deep concerns about the proposed lease to AT&T of a two-acre parcel of state endowment land near the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery, within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, for the purpose of erecting a cell tower 195 feet tall. Sawtooth Search and Rescue does not believe the tower, as proposed, is compatible with the purposes that Congress articulated for the SNRA when it established it in 1972. Specifically, it will not conform to the “scenic quality” objectives that Congress expressed for the SNRA, and for which the Forest Service has managed the area so carefully over the last 48 years.

Sawtooth Search and Rescue is an all-volunteer, member-based unit that operates under the authority of the Custer County Sheriff’s Office.

We recognize the need for communications for emergency services and first responders in the Sawtooth Valley, and we are very familiar with communications needs for search and rescue operations and emergency medical services. However, we feel very strongly that the existing Custer Telephone tower meets or exceeds the desired cell phone coverage in the Sawtooth Wilderness. We do not believe that a 195-foot tower, in one of the most scenic parts of the SNRA, is necessary. We do not want a cell tower higher than the Custer Telephone tower.

In 2013, Custer Telephone, the current lease holder on the parcel being proposed for the additional lease, conducted a propagation study comparing the relative coverage of 100- and 200-foot towers. Its analysis did not show a significant improvement in coverage within the Highway 75 corridor from a taller tower. Custer Telephone has additional space on the existing tower to colocate an additional service provider. This option should be very seriously considered.

As a potential alternative to the 195-foot tower, if cell coverage for emergency responders is truly the objective here, and not just financial gain to AT&T or the state, we propose that AT&T work with Custer Telephone Cooperative to install a cell phone service repeater at Redfish Lake Visitor Center, which would greatly enhance cell phone coverage in the Redfish Lake area.

We understand that current FAA rules do not require a 195-foot tower to be lighted. We also understand that the FAA is reviewing its regulations on this and that it is likely the regulations will be revised to require lighting on shorter towers. That would further impact the scenic quality of the area, which now falls within the very first International Dark Sky Reserve in the United States. While we know the objective of Idaho Department of Lands is to maximize long-term financial returns on the lands it manages, we question Department’s decisions that may damage the economic benefits this Dark Skies designation, and the general scenic quality of the area, has on local business owners.

In 2013 when Custer Telephone was planning the existing cell tower, it made a good-faith effort to work with SNRA staff and the local community to protect the scenic and natural values of the SNRA, and to be responsive to the local citizenry’s concerns.

We encourage IDL to deny the current proposal, and work with the Forest Service, Custer Telephone, Custer County and the local community to appropriately add AT&T’s First Net system onto the existing tower. We do not believe the current proposal provides an appropriate solution, and we strongly oppose the proposed 195-foot cell tower.

Gary Gadwa is commander of Sawtooth Search and Rescue.

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