STANLEY — An Idaho family’s application for a private airstrip south of Stanley has raised concern from neighbors who say flights will ruin the peaceful area within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. They also worry that approval of the airstrip, which appears to already have been constructed and in use, will set a bad precedent for other private landowners.
On Feb. 16, Michael and Amanda Boren filed with Custer County Planning and Zoning for a conditional use permit, asking the county to formally recognize a runway on their property as a desginated airstrip. The Borens’ land, known as Hell Roaring Ranch, is about 15 miles south of Stanley and, like the rest of the Sawtooth Valley, is nestled within the bounds of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
Neighbors say the Borens have already built an airstrip and hangars without approval from Custer County Planning and Zoning. Both developments require a conditional use permit for construction, according to county zoning codes.
“The problem is the fact that you’re going after a conditional use permit when the project’s already been developed without any approval from Planning and Zoning,” Stewart Wilder, a neighbor who leads the board of the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Society, told the Statesman in a phone interview.
Wilder is one of several Custer County residents who have submitted public comments to Planning and Zoning urging it to reject the airstrip.
“We have to take a stand because if the Planning and Zoning board approves a conditional use permit after the fact, it sets a horrible precedent in the Valley,” he said.
LOCALS SAY AIRSTRIP ALREADY IN USE, AFFECTING SAWTOOTHS’ TRANQUILITYWilder and other locals say they often see small airplanes and helicopters take off and land from Michael Boren’s property. Michael Boren and his brother Dave, who co-founded Boise-based Clearwater Analytics, have both held private pilot’s licenses. Michael also owns a business called Obsidian Aircraft. He did not return a telephone message from the Statesman asking for comment.
In their permit application, Michael and Amanda Boren acknowledged that they have a “grass area occasionally used as a runway” on the property.
“The owner of this ranch has multiple operating ranches in Idaho, and small aircraft form an integral part of the ranch management plan,” the application reads.
The application also says that approval of an airstrip would not lead to increased flights, which Michael and Amanda Boren said happen “less than a handful” of times per week.
Wilder and other neighbors disagree. They say flights happen much more frequently — sometimes several times per day — and perhaps shouldn’t happen at all. Private land within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area has been subject to certain rules since the creation of the area in 1972.
Congress created the recreation area in an effort to prevent “the development of high-density subdivisions that were beginning to spread throughout the area and mar its scenic beauty,” according to Forest Service documents. Private landowners in the area must keep developments in line with SNRA guidelines, which include prioritizing outdoor recreation and “natural, scenic, historic, pastoral, and fish and wildlife values.”
Wilder said ongoing flights “jeopardize the pastoral and historical significance of area.” He and others are calling on the Forest Service to step in and raise the SNRA charter in opposition to the Borens’ airstrip.
“The Forest Service needs to be involved in that meeting and have a position,” Wilder said. “That’s their duty.”
Sawtooth National Forest supervisor Jim DeMaagd told the Statesman in a phone interview that the Forest Service submitted its own public comment to Planning and Zoning, reiterating the verbiage from its charter that prioritizes nature and scenery.
DeMaagd said the Forest Service has not yet received a proposal from Boren, though he anticipates receiving one following the Planning and Zoning proposal hearing on April 1. Until then, the Forest Service won’t take other action, he said.
“We’re kind of in a holding pattern with the county like everyone else,” DeMaagd said.
After the Forest Service receives an airstrip proposal, a group of district-level Forest Service employees will evaluate it and determine whether it’s consistent with the SNRA values. DeMaagd said there are certain guidelines that Boren will need to follow on his ranch because of an existing agreement.
“The interesting thing with this parcel is back in 1974, the federal government purchased a conservation easement on the parcel,” he said. “That further restricts the landowner from building a hotel or something else like that. It limits what they can do with that land.”
OPPOSITION AMONG NEIGHBORS, ON SOCIAL MEDIA
It’s not just Wilder who has raised concerns. A cadre of other landowners from the Sawtooth Valley have circulated information among themselves, calling on one another to submit public comment and raise awareness about the airstrip with their own contacts.
Public comments on the permit must be submitted to Custer County Planning and Zoning by 5 p.m. Thursday, March 25. Comments can be submitted to the Custer County Planning and Zoning office in person or online by emailing Jessica Clemenhagen, email@example.com. A public hearing is scheduled for April 1.
Posts on Facebook and Twitter have also called for public comments and garnered dozens of responses critical of the proposal.
A news release sent Monday by Wilder includes criticism from Marie Osborn, a Stanley resident who’s known for her work as Idaho’s first nurse practitioner.
“The Sawtooths and Sawtooth National Recreation Area are the heart of Idaho, not a plaything for the wealthy and powerful,” she said. “There are already adequate airstrips serving the valley.”
Others have pointed out that the two nearby airports — in Stanley and Smiley Creek — are open for public use. Tom Kovalicky, a former Forest Service ranger for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, said the agency rejected other airstrip proposals in the five years he spent at the SNRA.
“We didn’t permit airstrips when I was there because of the fact that, through analysis, we found we had enough airstrips to serve the area,” he said in a phone interview.
It’s not the first time the Borens have drawn criticism over their flight activities. Last summer, the Forest Service filed for a restraining order against the brothers after Michael and an unidentified passenger allegedly harassed a construction crew working on a trail by flying over the crew in Michael Boren’s helicopter. Dave Boren is an outspoken critic of the trail, which passes through part of his property on an easement, and would connect Stanley to Redfish Lake. A federal magistrate judge denied the Forest Service’s request for a restraining order.