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Michael Boren sues opponents of Sawtooth airstrip for defamation

Downtown Stanley in the winter
Matt Guilhem
Boise State Public Radio
The Borens' Hell Roaring Ranch is located about 15 miles south of Stanley.

Last year, Custer County gave the go-ahead for Boise businessman Michael Boren to designate an area of his Sawtooth Valley ranch property as a private airstrip. Now, Boren is suing individuals who opposed the conditional use permit he was granted, including a Blaine County Commissioner, for defamation.

The complaint, filed in district court in Custer County on May 6, alleges Blaine County Commissioner Richard “Dick” Fosbury and an opposition group of individuals, including Custer County resident Gary Gadwa, “intentionally, or at least, recklessly, disparaged Boren” with the intent of opposing the use of his property as a landing area for his aircraft.

Jon Conti, a Boise filmmaker, is also named as a defendant in the suit for creating a YouTube video this year called “The Billionaire Building a Private Airport in the Sawtooths,” in which he allegedly shared defamatory statements “intended to harm Boren’s reputation,” according to the complaint.

The Custer County Planning and Zoning Commission approved the permit for the private airstrip on Boren’s 480-acre Hell Roaring Ranch property in May 2021, and, following an appeal, the Custer County Commissioners upheld that decision in August.

Opponents, who organized a group called Advocates for the SNRA, said the airstrip would detract from the values of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer. Boren’s private property is within the federally-protected area and has a conservation easement attached to it.

Meanwhile, Boren, a co-founder of Clearwater Analytics, said the airstrip was needed for ranching activities and that it could be used by local emergency responders.

With his complaint, Boren is seeking a declaratory judgment that statements made by the defendants are false and defamatory.

Those statements include allegations Boren illegally constructed an airport or airstrip on his property, that his use of the pasture as a landing area was unlawful, that he needed permission from the county or the U.S. Forest Service to land his aircraft on his pasture and that he lied to government officials to hide he was constructing an airstrip.

He’s also seeking a jury trial to recover damages he’s expended in trying to preserve his reputation.

Boren and his family have received death threats, the ranch operations have been “targeted for sabotage,” and Boren’s business opportunities have been negatively impacted, according to information from his spokesperson Todd Cranney, shared by email.

Cranney also said that any damages recovered by the lawsuit would go to non-profit organizations that benefit the SNRA and the community.

William Smith, an attorney for Conti, called the lawsuit “baseless and frivolous.” Smith said he and his client will defend the case and are considering whether they will make a counterclaim.

Smith said Conti was acting as a journalist and relied on other news reports and records to create his video. He also said Conti took down the video from YouTube when he was asked, and said he had no intention of putting it back up.

The complaint, on the other hand, said Boren proposed a settlement with Conti if he apologized and paid $5,000 to non-profit organizations in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. But the lawsuit claimed Conti rejected his offer and said if Boren didn’t pay him $100,000, he would continue to share the video.

Smith said the description of those conversations does not capture the full story.

“We thought we were in negotiations, and then we got this complaint,” he said.

In regards to Fosbury, the complaint alleges he played a central role in the opposition to Boren’s conditional use permit and used his influence as a Blaine County Commissioner to try to sway the decision-making process, including by setting up closed-door meetings with the U.S. Forest Service.

Gadwa, commander of Sawtooth Search and Rescue, was vocal in his opposition to the airstrip and said it was not necessary for emergency rescues. He and Fosbury did not want to comment on the case Monday.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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