If information presented during a meeting hosted by Idaho Tower Co. is correct, construction of some type of communication facility at Galena Summit is all but certain.
The only question is who will take the lead on the project eyed for the remote ridge northwest of Ketchum. The meeting, held at the Ketchum YMCA last Thursday, came while Sawtooth National Forest officials are seeking public comment on a plan that could derail Idaho Tower's desire to construct a 90-foot cell tower.
The company has worked for nearly a decade on a plan to erect the tower and an equipment building just north of the spot where state Highway 75 crosses 8,701-foot Galena Summit, which separates the upper Salmon and Big Wood drainages. The site is within the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
Last July, Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Jane Kollmeyer denied the proposed facility, citing the "substantial impairment" it would produce along the scenic ridge. Her decision was later overturned on procedural grounds.
A rule change proposed by officials would further restrict projects that would impair scenic views at Galena Summit, a popular destination for local backcountry skiers. Forest officials have said the rule would likely stop Idaho Tower's plans.
The Galena tower issue hasn't escaped the notice of state officials. Last December, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter wrote Kollmeyer to encourage her to reverse her decision.
Sawtooth officials have initiated a formal 30-day comment period on the rule change. The comment period ends March 11. Additional information can be found at the forest's Web site.
During last week's meeting, Jennifer Campbell, who co-owns Idaho Tower, introduced Steve Steiner with the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security. During a lengthy talk, Steiner said the agency considers Galena Summit a key point in its longterm vision to improve emergency communications across Idaho.
When complete, the project will allow federal, state and emergency agencies to communicate together on one frequency, Steiner explained. For now, emergency responders are left communicating on a variety of frequencies, which means they often must carry several portable radios.
"It was in our plan to go to Galena Summit sometime in the next five years," he said.
Steiner said Homeland Security would like to piggyback its communication equipment onto the structure Idaho Tower hopes to erect, thereby saving taxpayers money. However, a structure of only 60 feet is needed to provide adequate reception under the system, he said.
"We can all share the infrastructure," he said. "One tower is better than four or five."
If the denial for Idaho Tower's project stands, Homeland Security may choose to erect a taller tower down the ridge to the west where Midvale Telephone already maintains a communications building under permit with the forest, Steiner said. However, he said a 120-foot or taller communication tower may be needed at that site, which is even more open and visible than the site chosen by Idaho Tower.
Steiner implied that erecting a tower at the secondary site may be as simple as incorporating it into the Midvale Telephone facility.
"It's permitted," he said. "That's our alternative."
But Steiner's confidence in that alternate scenario runs counter to the assessment of forest officials. According to Jackie Richter, Forest Service project leader for the Galena cell tower project, any substantial change to Midvale's permit would require an environmental analysis.
Richter predicted that a proposal to erect a tower on the building as part of the existing permit wouldn't fly. She said a large tower like that envisioned by Steiner would likely be denied.
Richter said such a project would have to go through a new permitting and environmental analysis process under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Idaho Tower also asked several officials from local emergency response agencies to speak about communication challenges in the upper Big Wood River area. Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle said he had to carry four radios during the recent Special Olympics activities.
He said that expanding the state's communication plan to Galena Summit with the help of Idaho Tower's proposal would help local emergency responders. For now, he said, much of the upper Big Wood is a big communications blank spot.
"It will help me provide service to you," he said.
However, several members of the crowd pointed out the difference between Idaho Tower's cell tower proposal and the need for greater emergency communication coverage north of Ketchum. For one, the height needed by Homeland Security and local emergency officials is only two-thirds that required to establish cell phone coverage in the area, they said.
Hailey resident Denise Jackson Ford alleged that Idaho Tower is using the emergency communications discussion to justify its desire to profit from the project.
"It is being put up for cell convenience," she said.
Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, who was instrumental in the creation of the SNRA in 1972, has also weighed in on the controversial topic, though with a decidedly different take than that of the state's current governor. Like other tower opponents, Andrus fears that approval will lead to more cell tower construction in the SNRA.
"If we let them in, they set a precedent," he said.
A better alternative would be to construct a series of emergency call boxes along the winding route, Andrus said during an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express. He said the Idaho Transportation Department has completed a similar project on a remote stretch of U.S. Highway 12 along the Lochsa River.
"We could do the same thing," he said.
Despite the intense interest in the project, Andrus said he believes Kollmeyer will not be swayed in her decision.
"She's following the law we passed," he said.
Jason Kauffman: firstname.lastname@example.org