Proposed Sawtooths airstrip drew hundreds of negative letters. Owner says his aim is safety

·8 min read

Custer County Planning and Zoning on Thursday will decide the fate of a controversial airstrip near Stanley that the owner says will benefit emergency services.

Critics call it a nuisance.

Public records from Planning and Zoning show the proposal drew hundreds of comments ahead of April 1, when the committee first heard the issue and tabled it for further discussion. More than two-thirds of the roughly 600 submitted comments urged the committee to deny the request to formally recognize the grass pasture as an airstrip, which was submitted by Clearwater Analytics co-founder Michael Boren.

Boren’s Hell Roaring Ranch property is about 15 miles south of Stanley and falls within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

Opponents said approving the airstrip would affect the scenic qualities and wildlife that the SNRA protects and reward Boren for allegedly moving forward with the project without proper permits. They also said his flights have been a frequent nuisance for neighbors and those recreating.

But Boren has argued that he’s done nothing wrong and is seeking a permit for the benefit of backcountry pilots and emergency responders, not to retroactively validate his private aviation.

The controversy speaks to ongoing concerns that the recreation area — designated in the 1970s to preserve the area’s pastoral history — has lost its way as the super wealthy move in, and raises questions over whether Boren will continue to take off from the property privately even if his permit is rejected.

Boren says flights are legal

Boren isn’t without his supporters. Planning and Zoning received more than 170 letters in support of the airstrip, including from Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who submitted a letter on his official legislative letterhead. Many of the letters included similar wording, drawing from templates that appeared to be distributed to neighbors, friends and private pilots.

Todd Cranney, a friend of and spokesman for the Boren family, said the Borens reached out to supporters “just like any applicant does.” Cranney submitted his own letter in support of the airstrip.

Supporters described Boren as a responsible pilot, hardworking rancher and search-and-rescue participant who hopes an official airstrip designation will offer a spot for emergency services like Life Flight to land.

“Medical, mechanical and fire-related emergencies are all real threats in that area,” Cranney said in an email. “Mike simply wants to make it available for use in any of those emergency situations.”

In his conditional use permit (CUP) application, Boren stated that he is already taking off from the property and using “small aircraft (as) an integral part of the ranch management plan” as he travels between several ranch properties he owns.

According to an Idaho Transportation Department spokesperson, no state or Federal Aviation Administration rules require aircraft to take off from or land on designated airstrips. Cranney said the grass airstrip has not been paved and would not be even if the permit is approved.

In Custer County, the zoning ordinance requires conditional use permits for the construction of airports, heliports and landing strips that will be used as a public service. Boren said during the April 1 meeting that his private use of the grass airstrip doesn’t constitute a public service.

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Boren’s CUP application also stated that he requested the permit “for insurance purposes only.” The application mentioned his participation in search and rescue and said a designated airstrip would be able to be used by emergency services. Cranney said Boren is involved in Blaine County search and rescue and witnessed a car crash near the ranch that “was a driving reason for applying for the permit.”

“(Boren) has been a personal witness to many such incidents in the county where easy emergency aircraft access would make a significant difference,” Cranney wrote. “Mike doesn’t want there to ever be a situation where his property could save a person’s life but isn’t used because it’s not on an aviation map or someone questions if it has the right paperwork for that type of emergency use.”

Critics push back at emergency needs

Despite Boren’s claims that a designated airstrip would serve emergency responders, critics said it’s a solution in search of a problem.

Gary Gadwa, commander of Sawtooth Search and Rescue, said he sees no need for an additional airstrip — airports at Stanley to the north and Smiley Creek to the south are within 15 miles of Boren’s property — and said he believes it’s an excuse to earn permit approval. Gadwa submitted a letter to Planning and Zoning in opposition of the permit, as did the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Society, where he is a board member.

“There’s no reason (for emergency services) to stop mid-valley,” Gadwa said in a phone interview.

Gadwa was an EMT in Central Idaho for 38 years and has been involved in search and rescue for three decades.

He said local hospitals can’t land fixed-wing aircraft at any of the area airports as none of them has a paved runway. The air ambulance helicopters they use instead can land just about anywhere, regardless of whether it’s a designated airstrip, he said. He said Sawtooth Search and Rescue has not considered using Boren’s airstrip for its operations.

Gadwa’s letter raised these points with Planning and Zoning. Like many others, he also expressed concern for the impacts on wildlife in the area and violation of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area’s guidelines that prioritize “natural, scenic, historic, pastoral, and fish and wildlife values.” The Forest Service has scenic easement agreements in perpetuity on much of the private land within the recreation area — including Boren’s ranch.

Acting area ranger Brian Anderson submitted the 1974 easement agreement as part of his letter to Planning and Zoning, in which he told officials the Forest Service was not informed of construction plans for the airstrip and has not certified that the project complies with the easement. (Boren said during the April 1 meeting that no one from the Forest Service or SNRA has told him he’s in violation of the easement despite inspecting the ranch yearly for compliance.)

Anderson also pointed out that there’s precedent for nixing airstrips in the area — he said the Forest Service “used public funds decades ago to acquire and eliminate the use of the Swiss Villa airstrip and its associated development approximately four miles north of the Boren property.”

Other opponents’ letters pushed back against Boren’s characterization of his flight activities in his permit application. Boren said there have been “an average of less than a handful of flights per week” from the property and said use wouldn’t increase. Numerous letters from nearby residents and Sawtooth recreators recounted much more frequent flights, including low flight paths over neighboring homes and hovering in his helicopter over popular hiking destinations and trails.

“We have repeatedly seen the Borens’ red helicopter flying low over Alturas Lake trails while skiing there this winter,” Stanley residents Richard and Sandra Hesselbacher wrote. “It completely shatters the peace that we all cherish.”

A plane lands in the grass pasture at Hell Roaring Ranch that Michael Boren uses as an airstrip. Boren has applied for a permit to designate the pasture as an official airstrip. He said that would allow it to be used by emergency services like search and rescue.
A plane lands in the grass pasture at Hell Roaring Ranch that Michael Boren uses as an airstrip. Boren has applied for a permit to designate the pasture as an official airstrip. He said that would allow it to be used by emergency services like search and rescue.

Would permit open the door to similar issues — or address current complaints?

Many people who commented in opposition to the permit raised a similar concern: that signing off on Boren’s airstrip could open the door to more controversial development — much of it driven by wealthy newcomers — in what’s meant to remain a rustic reminder of Idaho’s roots.

Cranney said Boren doesn’t fall into the same category as many of the Sawtooth Valley’s newer residents. His family has been in Custer County for decades, and Boren attended high school in Challis. Boren said it’s where he plans to spend the majority of his time for the rest of his life.

And while some public comments included concerns that Boren could later pave the airstrip and begin taking off and landing in private jets, Cranney said there are no plans to pave the area or even add lighting. He also said the airstrip would remain private and emphasized that it will not become a commercial airport.

Regardless of Boren’s Idaho roots, opponents don’t want the county to sign off on what they consider bad behavior — from the allegedly frequent flights to the construction of what Cranney called an “equipment shed” where Boren sometimes stores aircraft that is “completely compliant and properly permitted and approved.” (The $1.1 million structure was labeled a “hangar” in a construction magazine profile and features a mural of aircraft inside. It’s not clear whether the building was presented as a hangar for permitting.)

Even if the Planning and Zoning Commission rejects Boren’s permit, it’s not clear whether his personal flights — which were the subject of many complaints in the public comments — would continue. He said in his permit application that his current usage of the pasture as an airstrip is within regulations. Cranney reiterated that use of the pasture as an airstrip is within Boren’s private property rights and said his flights also fall under Idaho’s “Right to Farm” legislation, which protects agricultural operations from being declared nuisances.

Cranney didn’t speculate on whether the personal flights would continue.

“We’re committed to working with the county on this issue,” he said in a phone interview.