Voices in the Wild

Proposed cell tower raises questions in Sun Valley


It may soon be possible to buy stocks, call a friend, or just call for help from the Galena Summit backcountry hiking and skiing area north of Ketchum.

Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Jane Kollmeyer will decide in February whether to allow construction of a 90-foot-tall communications stealth tower (cleverly disguised as a pine tree) on the 8,700-foot summit. The tower would provide cellular coverage from Galena Lodge to Petit Lake, including much of the village of Smiley Creek in the Stanley Basin.

Proponents of the tower argue for public safety along Highway 75, which connects the towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley with Galena Summit and the Stanley Basin to the north, where stranded motorists could call for help. Others say backcountry skiers and hikers could call for help in an emergency.

Critics of the tower plan say it will be unsightly and detract from the splendor of the area, popular with backcountry skiers, snowboarders and hikers. On a clear day, Galena Summit affords views from Stanley to Bald Mountain, a distance of 60 miles, as well as the Sawtooth, Boulder and White Cloud mountains.

Jackie Richter, U.S. Forest Service project leader for the proposed Galena Summit Tower study, has collected 94 comments on both sides of the issue and is awaiting an environmental assessment before the Forest Service can proceed with a decision.

"There have been traffic accidents on Galena Summit which may have had a different outcome if there had been cell service," Richter said. "But opponents of the tower say that many accidents are caused by drivers who are distracted by their cell phones to begin with."

Richter thinks some opponents have philosophical reasons for opposing the tower: Perhaps the kind of philosophy that is written into the wilderness law as "primitive and unconfined" and continues to protect 4.3 million acres of wilderness in Idaho from cellular technology.

"They want to get back away from that kind of technology. They want to get away from the rat race and don't want coverage out there," she said.

Bob Rosso believes the effect of the tower on the area outweighs the benefits to public safety.

Rosso has lived in Ketchum since 1971 and owns The Elephant's Perch outdoor gear store. Rosso has seen a four-fold increase in alpine-touring and other backcountry uses in the last 10 years, much of it at or near Galena Summit. Although his livelihood depends in part on the influx of backcountry enthusiasts, he thinks the tower is unnecessary.

"People vanish in the backcountry because they go out there alone without telling anybody where they are going," he said. "That's just bad planning."

Rosso said that trained winter recreationists go out in teams and use two-way radios, especially when traversing avalanche zones. In addition to radio transceivers (beepers) for locating avalanche victims, Rosso said there are inexpensive satellite GPS emergency locators for effectively locating people who need security in case they get lost or find themselves in trouble. They can also send "I'm OK" messages by satellite.

"Lives are saved out there by preparation and human reaction time, not cell phones," Rosso said. "I don't think the safety issue is worth letting these towers get started. You will have them lacing the peaks in all directions in order to get coverage in all the nooks and crannies out there.

"With all our Forest Service lands and potential wilderness, do you really want some idiot babbling away on his cell phone at the next camp site? That's not my cup of tea. People really should turn off the office for a while and enjoy the mountains."

With the new tower, cell coverage below Galena Summit will be strong along much of Highway 75 to Smiley Creek, but lessen into smaller and smaller patches, a phenomenon that Richter said has caused problems elsewhere on public lands.

"In the Olympic National Park in Washington state and in places back east, where cell coverage is shaky, people have become dependent upon it anyway and make bad choices in the back country, and then expect to be rescued immediately if anything bad happens," Richter said.

The Forest Service has little to gain monetarily from the tower in any case. It will bring only $3,000 per year into the U.S. Treasury, yet revenue from four cellular providers will bring as much as $120,000 per year to Idaho Tower Company if they are successful in getting the tower built and rented out.

Dean Newman is a cellular communications consultant and Sun Valley Company employee who has worked in the industry for 37 years, since the radio telephone era. He is also an agent for Edge Wireless, the anchor tenant waiting for the proposed tower. Anchor tenants take the highest place on a cellular communications tower and, as a result, usually claim bragging rights for the best coverage in the area.

"The Galena site is perfect for a tower because it has three things," Newman said. "It has a road, an electrical power line and a fiber optic cable. Galena Summit is also a tremendous site due to the height. It will have a range of 25 miles."

Newman said the average range for a cell tower of this height is 13 miles. He envisions two more towers between Ketchum and Stanley in the next decade, providing more coverage between the two towns.

"They will never allow permits for any more sites in the area," he said. "There are no other sites which fit the requirements, and when you go through the permitting process, people are mean to you even on the street."

Jennifer Campbell of Idaho Tower Company, based in Ketchum, is spearheading the permitting efforts for the Galena tower. She points out that the proposed site is already home to a 42-square-foot microwave reflector site and support structure northeast of the Galena Summit parking area. The site has been used for years as a first-responder radio station and for bouncing telephone service from Stanley.

"This is a frontier technology which is changing quickly," she said. "There are people who seem to think that cellular technology is an infringement on their peace and tranquility. They would rather leave the trappings of man at the gate. But I could envision signs out there on trails that say 'please turn off your cell phones,' just like you see in restaurants."

Following Kollmeyer's decision, a 45-day appeals period will begin for anyone who has already made substantive comments on the issue.