Wednesday, February 11, 2009

New rules could block Galena cell tower

Forest officials seeking public comment on rules governing scenic views in the SNRA

Express Staff Writer

The Sawtooth National Forest is considering a plan that would make the protection of scenic views at Galena Summit, shown here on this map, more restrictive. The forest is seeking public comment on the proposal, which if adopted, could block a cellular tower a Ketchum company hopes to construct there.

Sawtooth National Forest officials are seeking public comment on a plan that would make it harder for Ketchum-based Idaho Tower Co. to construct a 90-foot self-supporting cellular tower at Galena Summit.

The rule change officials are considering would further restrict projects that could impair the scenic views along the high ridge area, which is a popular destination for local backcountry skiers. Galena Summit is northwest of Ketchum near the headwaters of the Big Wood River.

Last year, Sawtooth officials were forced to go back and seek public comment on the proposal after a regional U.S. Forest Service official reversed a decision by Supervisor Jane Kollmeyer that denied the so-called "stealth tower" proposed by Idaho Tower. Kollmeyer based her rejection of the tower on the "substantial impairment" the project would produce along the scenic ridgetop.

But Kollmeyer got her decision remanded because she failed to provide adequate public notice and opportunity for public comment regarding her decision to amend the rules related to the protection of scenic views in the Galena Summit area. Kollmeyer said the reversal meant that there were procedural errors in her decision-making process that needed correcting.

"We missed a step in the process and will work to remedy that situation," Kollmeyer said at the time.

Now, Sawtooth officials have started a 30-day comment period on the proposed rule change. The comment period ends March 11. Additional information on the rule change and comment period can be found at the forest's Web site.

Specifically, the rule change would make scenic views in a portion of the Galena Summit area in and around the proposed cell tower a higher priority.

"It continues to be important to me to hear from the public," Kollmeyer said in a prepared statement.

According to Sawtooth officials, the decision to make visual quality standards stricter for the Galena Summit area was made after forest officials determined that a rough dirt road that leads the proposed cellular tower site receives more public recreational use than previously thought. The discovery was made by four separate "visual specialists" who surveyed the site surrounding the proposed tower during the official environmental assessment, said Jackie Richter, the Forest Service project leader for the Galena cell tower project.

When the Forest Service considers scenic impacts of a particular project, they often refer to "visual quality objectives." In the case of the Galena project, the agency's staff determined that the dirt road to the proposed tower site wasn't designated properly, Richter said.

Because of the use the area receives from backcountry skiers and snowboarders in the winter, officials determined that Galena Summit's scenic qualities deserve a higher level of protection, she said.

Richter said the forest is aware that some people may see the proposal to increase the scenic protection level for the area as an attempt to simply thwart the construction of the cell tower.

"That is a perspective that some people have," she said.

However, she said, forest officials see it more as fixing an oversight. Richter said the dirt road wasn't analyzed before, and the environmental assessment for the cell tower simply discovered that more recreational use occurs there than previously believed.

If the area were designated for a higher level of protection as called for in the forest's proposal, substantial impairment of the scenic qualities of Galena Summit would not be allowed to occur, Richter said.

"We would not allow the cell tower to be built there," she said.

Jason Kauffman:

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