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Satellite phones turn cowboys into a ‘voice on the mountain’

Idaho Rancher Paul Nettleton takes his Iridium Satellite phone from its protective case Tuesday, August 26, 2008 near his ranch in Silver City, Idaho. Nettleton was one of seven rural Owyhee County cattlemen to receive a satellite phone from the Bureau of Land Management in order to help alert land managers of wildfires in rural portions of the state. (AP Photo/Charlie Litchfield)
AP | AP

SILVER CITY, Idaho ” The craggy gullies where Idaho cowboy Paul Nettleton runs 1,200 head of cattle around this living Owyhee County ghost town are often precious minutes from reliable cell phone coverage.

It’s a place where sudden summertime windstorms howl in from the broiling lava fields of eastern Oregon, bringing with them dry lightning that can ignite fast-moving wildfires on sage-and-juniper hillsides. Unchecked, they could quickly turn Silver City’s historic wooden buildings to ash.

This spring, Nettleton and six other Owyhee County ranchers who make their livelihoods in some of America’s most remote backcountry began carrying satellite telephones provided by the federal Bureau of Land Management and the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security.

It’s an effort to turn men whose ranching families have been wedded to this land for more than a century into a high-tech advance guard against wildfires that just a year ago devastated millions of acres in Idaho.

“Minutes count in that country,” a mustachioed Nettleton told The Associated Press one morning last week after parking his four-wheeler outside the town’s 145-year-old Idaho Hotel. “Right now, it’s pretty quiet. But it’ll come.”

The BLM says Owyhee County ” the name comes from South Pacific explorer Captain Cook’s spelling of Hawaii and honors Hawaiian trappers who disappeared in the uncharted region in 1818 ” is the first place the agency has armed cowboys with satellite phones.

Residents who call Silver City home during the summer feel a little safer, knowing Nettleton is always connected to one of Bethesda, Md.,-based Iridium Satellite LLC’s 66 satellites hurtling through space, not just the earthbound cell tower on nearby War Eagle Mountain that’s often blocked the region’s terrain.

“He’s kind of our voice on the mountain,” said Jim Hyslop, who helps run the local Silver City Fire and Rescue and has family roots here dating to 1916.

After nearly eight years of uninterrupted drought, ample snowfall and spring rains in 2008 left much of Owyhee County’s high country greener than normal this year, meaning fire danger has been limited. Those typical summer storms with dry lightning and sudden gales haven’t materialized, either; the ranchers have yet to use their new phones.

A year ago, however, 3,000 square miles of Idaho ” an area three times the size of Rhode Island ” was torched by blazes.

The biggest was the Murphy complex of fires, a lightning-caused inferno that burned for three weeks and became the largest single fire ever fought by the Idaho BLM at nearly 1,000 square miles. It left behind dead wildlife and livestock, scorched grazing ground and charred habitat for seasons to come for sensitive species such as sage grouse.

As the embers were barely cool, BLM managers and ranchers last fall began discussions about improving communication before the next conflagration.

For an initial agency investment of $10,000, the seven Iridium satellite phones seemed a reasonable bargain, said Janet Peterson, the BLM’s safety manager in Boise ” especially considering the Murphy complex alone cost more than $13 million to fight and will likely set taxpayers back another $34 million to restore the blackened landscape.

“The ranchers are a pretty key partner,” she said. “They know the country.”

Iridium has nearly 230,000 commercial and government voice subscribers, along with a unit that supplies equipment for companies and the U.S. Department of Defense to track assets in remote areas where there’s no conventional cellular communication.

Voice users include soldiers, the maritime industry, oil-and-gas companies, utilities, construction and mining ” “Basically any industry where you’ve got workers out in the middle of nowhere,” Iridium spokeswoman Liz DeCastro said.

Should one of Idaho’s cowboys spot a fire and place a call, firefighting planes stationed at the Boise Airport across the Snake River could be scrambled quickly.

The ranchers have been told to use the phones in medical emergencies, too. The state’s disaster agency, the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security, is chipping in for the service costs.

“If you see a fire and have no connectivity, you can’t tell anybody,” said Col. Bill Shawver, the agency’s director. “To have a satellite phone with you, you can make that immediate call and get firefighters mobilized.”

The phones were distributed to ranchers based on where they run their cattle and the existing grid of cell phone service. Cowboys call in once a month, to make sure the phones are working.

Ken Tindall, whose family has ranched Owyhee County since 1885, has 1,000 head of cattle on 100,000 acres of private and public land on both sides of the Idaho and Nevada border. In Nevada, he has no cell phone reception at all; his BLM sat phone could come in handy, he said.

“From some of the ridge tops, I can see 80, 90 or 100 miles in any direction,” Tindall said. “If I see smoke, I can get it reported very quickly. I could have used it last year a lot, that’s for sure.”


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