Proposed tower in Bears Ears would eclipse Utah’s tallest building

Proponents say it would improve emergency services and internet access in a remote part of San Juan County.

Towering rock formations, glittering stars, a glimpse of the Milky Way — and flashing red lights from a telecommunications tower?

That could be what you see in the sky during your next visit to southeastern Utah.

On Feb. 8, the San Juan County Planning Commission approved a conditional use permit for a telecom tower within Bears Ears National Monument. The proposed tower would surpass the tallest building in Utah — the Astra Tower in Salt Lake City, which will be 449 feet tall when it’s completed — at 460 feet tall.

The tower would be located on a parcel of land within the monument owned by the Utah Trust Lands Administration, which leases and sells land to generate revenue for the state’s public schools. Last month, the Utah Legislature and Gov. Spencer Cox rejected a land exchange that would have put this parcel in the federal government’s hands.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Vertical Bridge Development LLC, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based company and the largest private owner of communications infrastructure nationwide, proposed the project.

“Our main objective is to make money for the trust, and this land benefits public schools,” Marla Kennedy, a spokesperson for the Utah Trust Lands Administration, said. “Any money we can make for public schools, we consider advantageous.”

A San Juan County Planning Commission staff report summarizing the proposal says that the tower is “intended to fill communication gaps in the area as well as support infrastructure already in place to the southern part of the county.”

The telecom tower would enable emergency services to quickly respond to 911 calls, enhance broadband needed for online school and work, improve residents’ ability to access telehealth services online and bolster economic activity in the area, according to the San Juan County Planning Commission.

The proposed project will have to clear the San Juan County Commission.

“It’s going to benefit everyone,” Commission Chair Jamie Harvey, also an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, told The Tribune. “Ultimately, it comes down to safety for our visitors coming to the area and helping out first responders.”

“From a cultural perspective,” Harvey continued, “we gather wood up that way. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a pickle in an area where I’m collecting wood and get stranded. Our elders are doing that, too. They don’t care how old they are; they just want to get wood so they can make it through the winter.”

San Juan County Commission Vice Chair Silvia Stubbs and Commissioner Bruce Adams did not respond to a request for comment.

Between the voices that recommend the telecom tower to improve public safety and internet access in remote San Juan County, some community members are not so sure.

“I go out there quite a bit because it’s an area I like to go to when I need to get away and take a pause,” Davina Smith, a Diné resident of San Juan County running to represent District 69 in the Utah House of Representatives said.

“I have no doubt that there are better solutions that do not include having a gigantic tower in the middle of nowhere,” she continued. “Let’s work with [the U.S. Forest Service] and the Bureau of Land Management. It should be about collaboration with these agencies rather than having this 460-foot tower.”

The planning commission’s staff report includes that “the tower applicant is unaware of any impacts on endangered species, national historic sites, migratory birds, or Native American/Tribal lands,” though Smith raised concerns about those impacts.

If built, the tower’s blinking lights — one at the top, and one halfway up — could be seen from Natural Bridges National Monument, which is located within Bears Ears’ boundaries. The International Dark-Sky Association, which works to protect dark-sky areas from artificial lighting, certified Natural Bridges as the first International Dark Sky Park in 2007.

The National Park Service (NPS) did not respond to a request for comment about the proposed tower’s impact to Natural Bridges’ starry skies, but an NPS website on stargazing reads: “Due to its remote location, Natural Bridges preserves a primordial dark sky largely unaltered by modernity. The National Park Service wants to keep it that way.”

The San Juan County Commission would have to modify the county code to allow for the construction of the tower. The maximum height for buildings where this parcel is located is just 35 feet.

“If approved, this proposal would be disastrous for Natural Bridges and Bears Ears National Monuments and a real blight on the landscape,” said Neal Clark, wildlands director for the nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. ”It’s the latest example of why Utah trust lands need to be urgently traded out of sensitive public lands and underscores the Trust Lands Administration’s shortsighted view of what it means to benefit Utah’s schoolchildren. We hope that the San Juan County Commission has enough respect for both the natural beauty and dark night skies of the Bears Ears landscape to deny the requested variance.”

The San Juan County Commission has not yet made a decision on whether to approve the proposed telecom tower. Harvey said that the public will be able to make comments on the project when it is discussed.

The commission’s meeting schedule and agendas can be found at this link.