For the second time in just over a year, Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Jane Kollmeyer has denied a special use permit to the Ketchum-based Idaho Tower Co. that would have allowed for the installation of a cell tower on Galena Summit.
Kollmeyer announced her decision Wednesday, once again basing it on her opinion that a wireless telecommunication facility would have a negative visual impact and would not necessarily provide an increase in health and safety benefits.
The issue is open for appeal for 45 days, but only to people who submitted comments during the official 30-day comment periods in 2007 and 2009.
"While approval of the proposal may have improved emergency response times, I find with this decision that there are no known effects on public health and safety," Kollmeyer wrote in her decision.
Kollmeyer originally denied the cell tower in July 2008, citing "substantial impairment" the proposed 90-foot facility would have had on the scenic ridgetop. However, that decision was appealed and reversed by Deputy Regional Forester Cathy Beaty that September on the grounds that there wasn't "adequate notice and opportunity for public comment on the proposal."
That appeal resulted in a second 30-day notice and comment period that began Feb. 9.
In her decision this week, Kollmeyer said she read more than 300 comments voicing both support and opposition to the tower. She noted that, as with her original decision, the argument boiled down to public safety versus the scenic environment.
Kollmeyer wrote that while a tower could decrease response times for emergency service personnel, the proposed cell phone coverage would be limited to portions of state Highway 75 and wouldn't be as beneficial as some members of the public believed.
Julie Thomas, public affairs director for the SNRA, said analysis showed that some of the arguments regarding the safety of backcountry skiers and hikers were not entirely accurate. As an example, she said, skiers near avalanches that occurred on Galena this past winter would likely have not had cell phone coverage.
In fact, backcountry skiing played a role in her decision against the tower, as Kollmeyer noted that the "skin track," a path traditionally used by skiers to access peaks around Galena Summit, would be adversely affected by a tower.
"I am committed to protecting the unique resource values of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, while at the same time providing needed services to the public and their land," Kollmeyer wrote.
In addition, Kollmeyer stated that enhanced cell phone coverage could actually create a more hazardous, rather than safe, situation because talking or sending text messages would be a distraction for drivers.
Kollmeyer also said cell phones could "lead to a false sense of security for some visitors who may rely on their cell phone rather than being prepared when traveling in the backcountry."
Idaho Tower Co. spokeswoman Jen Campbell said she has yet to read the decision, but is frustrated with the outcome. Campbell said the company has not decided if it will submit an appeal.
"By taking the same stance as the original decision, the SNRA isn't responding to safety issues," Campbell said. "There is no visual impact along the scenic corridor and it's a very rigid approach that's being applied here."
Campbell said her company would be more likely to appeal if it receives support from national cell phone carriers and public safety representatives.
"I'm mentally exhausted by this project," Campbell said. "If we were in court, I think we would win, but we have gotten an education on what a political process this is."
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