The controversy surrounding a local company's bid to construct a 90-foot, self-supporting cellular tower on a high ridge near the headwaters of the Big Wood River looks to be far from over.
Earlier this week, representatives with Ketchum-based Idaho Tower Co. appealed a decision made in July by Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Jane Kollmeyer to deny the proposed "stealth" tower on Galena Summit, northwest of Ketchum. The appeal was filed with the U.S. Forest Service Region 4 office in Ogden, Utah.
Proponents of the facility have consistently claimed the cellular tower would add a significant measure of safety for the traveling public in the rural area surrounding Galena Summit, which marks the divide between the Big Wood and Salmon river drainages.
Citing the "substantial impairment" the project would produce on the scenic ridgetop, Kollmeyer announced earlier this year that she had chosen the "No Action" alternative described in an environmental assessment that considered potential impacts of the tower on lands in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. That meant the facility could not be built.
But in the lengthy appeal submitted by Idaho Tower Co. this week, backers of the tower claim Kollmeyer had already determined to deny the application before the environmental analysis began. They further claim that many of the objections to the controversial application were on grounds that "they do not want cell coverage to potentially interfere with their idea of how one should enjoy the SNRA."
The Idaho Tower Co. appeal states that Kollmeyer failed to obtain and consider information relating to the public's need for cellular service in the Galena area. Rather than direct her staff to investigate the purported safety benefits of having cellular service in the rural area, the appeal claims Kollmeyer had them focus on issues related to the dangers of using cellular phones while driving and whether doing so can lead to increased automobile accidents.
"The energy the Forest Service put into trying to gather negative safety information lies in sharp contrast to effort utilized to gather first-hand safety information," the appeal states.
The appeal also claims Sawtooth National Forest officials failed to follow federal guidelines in processing the application, citing a congressional mandate that federal lands should be made available for telecommunications services equipment.
The company conducted a balloon test as part of the application process to determine the visibility of the cellular tower from state Highway 75, which passes just southwest of the proposed project site.
From the highway on the south side of the summit closer to Ketchum, the balloon wasn't visible while set at a height of 90-feet at the site. However, simulated photos of the tower at different distances along the Highway 75 travel corridor indicated the tower would be visible from several points north of Galena Summit.
Representatives of Idaho Tower Co., which is owned by Wood River Valley residents Jennifer and John Campbell, selected a camouflaged cellular tower designed to appear as a pine tree, so it would best blend into the surrounding forest. However, at a height of 90 feet, the tower would clear the surrounding trees by about 40 feet, Forest Service information indicated.
The single tower was designed to provide space for up to four cellular carriers. One of the other alternatives considered but ultimately rejected in the EA called for two 70-foot towers to space out the cellular carriers at a less noticeable height.
The site where the tower and accompanying 968-square-foot equipment building and fenced enclosure was proposed for construction is accessed by a rough dirt road off Highway 75 on the northeast side of Galena Summit. The proposed facility would have been placed near the old microwave reflector site northeast of the Galena parking area.
In arriving at her decision, Kollmeyer had to consider the attractive qualities that draw thousands of visitors to the SNRA each year, a Sawtooth National Forest news release stated in July. The law that established the 756,000-acre recreation area identifies the area's scenic resources as a key value that must be preserved.
"Scenic resources on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area must be protected," Kollmeyer said.