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Controversial Sawtooth cell tower project highlights Idaho Endowment Trust Lands

Posted at 5:10 PM, Dec 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-21 00:18:52-05

STANLEY, Idaho — Several organizations and locals in the Stanley area have been openly opposed to a cell tower project south of Stanley that would be visible from Red Fish Lake and the surrounding area.

First Net has proposed building 195-foot antennae that would tower above the surrounding trees allowing AT&T to boost its coverage in an area that doesn't have very good service and plenty of dark spots.

But before we can jump into the sawtooth cellular tower project, first we have to learn about Idaho Endowment Public Trust Lands.

In 1890, Idaho became a state and the federal government granted Idaho 3,600,000 acres of land, but it came with a caveat that Idaho needed to use this land to bring in money for beneficiaries which include public schools, state universities and other institutions.

“The endowment beneficiaries own the land, but it is really our responsibility to manage that land on their behalf," said Sharla Arledge of the Idaho Department of Lands.

The state constitution mandates that the Idaho Land Board's mission is to secure the best long-term financial return as possible from these lands.

In the fiscal year 2021, endowment lands brought in $80 million and the biggest chunk generated came from timber sales, but the state also leases out land to cattle ranchers for grazing and land for energy or communications projects, $50 million of the money generated in the fiscal year 2021 went to public education.

However, there has been a loud outcry from people who have concerns that a 195-foot cell tower would create a scar in one of Idaho's most pristine landscapes near Stanley and the Sawtooth Recreation Area.

“I don’t think there has ever been a person who has woken up on those cold sawtooth mornings and looked out at the scenic beauty of the Sawtooth Mountains and said to themselves you know what the one thing that would make this better is a cell tower up on this ridge," said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League.

The locals in Stanley also have concerns because the area is one of 18 dark sky preserves in the country, and while the FAA doesn't require lights for towers under 200 feet, they will light up a tower depending on the location and the structure.

"That is a very big concern for a lot of people," said Stanley Mayor Steve Botti. "The tower is only four miles away from the Sawtooth Airport so that could be a reason to have it lighted in the future if they feel that is too close.”

Both the Mayor and Oppenheimer spoke to the Land Board at a meeting back in July, Oppenheimer told us he was disappointed that there was no public comment period, however when it comes to endowment lands they are not required to seek public input per state law.

“We do appreciate their comments and what they have to say but we have to help them understand what our mission is and what we are trying to accomplish on behalf of the endowment beneficiary," said Arledge.

The Idaho Board chaired by Governor Little rejected a petition to take another look at the land lease this past week in a unanimous decision.

Now the Idaho Conservation League will focus their efforts on fighting the project after it gets submitted by First Net and the lease gets finalized.

“It would be timely for us to resubmit that petition which we have every intention of doing along with the Sawtooth Interpretive Historical Society Association," said Oppenheimer. "At that point assuming that our petition for environment review is accepted then, First Net would kick off an environmental review process that would include public input.”

But it is apples to oranges while conservation groups think of the project in terms of the effect on the environment and aesthetics of the Sawtooth Region, the Land Board looks at it from a financial perspective because they are mandated to do so by state law and this land lease would generate around $30,000 a year to start.

“We appreciate collaboration as long as people understand our responsibility is to manage the financial return on that land for that endowment beneficiary that owns the land," said Arledge.

There is also a process to endowment land leases which starts two years prior to a lease expiring, the Idaho Department of Lands has an interactive map with those types of land.

After an application gets submitted the Idaho Department of Lands advertises it in a public auction trying to maximize bids and profits, but in the case of the small parcel bid on by First Net, no other bids were submitted.