Friday, June 10, 2022

Sawtooth Valley, Idaho: Ranch owner Michael Boren sues county commissioner, others in defamation lawsuit; suit asks for court ruling to quash “falsehoods” about airstrip

A year after Custer County officials approved a conditional-use permit application from Boise businessman Michael Boren—officially recognizing a portion of his Stanley-area ranch as a private airstrip—Boren has sued four individuals, including Blaine County Commissioner Dick Fosbury, for defamation.

Boren, 59—the cofounder of billion-dollar tech company Clearwater Analytics—filed the suit last month to correct several “falsehoods” that he says Fosbury and others spread to the media and general public about his landing strip on Hell Roaring Ranch, a 480-acre cattle ranch located within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

The ranch sits on a scenic easement on the west side of state Highway 75, about 15 miles south of Stanley. It includes a $1.1 million private aircraft hangar, according to a report from ICF Builder Magazine.

In his suit, Boren alleges that Fosbury led a "coordinated" smear campaign that spread misinformation to the media and public, threatening both Boren's reputation and property rights.

According to Boren's complaint and demand for jury trial—which he filed in 7th District Court on May 23 through his attorney, Thomas Banducci—Fosbury used his authority as a commissioner, "along with Blaine County resources,”  to hold "closed-door meetings" with U.S. Forest Service representatives with the end goal of thwarting the airstrip approval. The suit states that Fosbury also defamed Boren in an email dated May 1, 2021, in which Fosbury allegedly wrote to an Army Corps of Engineers representative that Boren “had lied" and misrepresented previous construction activity on his pasture as irrigation improvements, not airstrip construction.

Custer County resident Gary Gadwa and Ketchum resident Sarah Michael are also listed as defendants in Boren's suit because they actively participated in the "opposition campaign" led by Fosbury, the suit says. Jon Conti, a Boise filmmaker, is named as a fourth defendant for creating a since-deleted YouTube video earlier this year entitled “The Billionaire Building a Private Airport in the Sawtooths,” in which he allegedly referred to Boren as an ‘a--hole’ who "lies, because that’s who he is.”

Boren is also suing a group of 20 unnamed defendants listed as “[John or Jane] Does 1-20" for their role in participating in an opposition group called "Advocates for the Sawtooth NRA," which was led by Michael and supported by the Blaine County Commissioners, according to the lawsuit. The group claimed in a written appeal that Boren had violated FAA regulations, that his fuel storage tank violated the Clean Water Act, that he violated the Endangered Species Act, that he failed to obtain proper permitting for his septic system and that he had lied about airstrip construction, the suit states.

The appeal, filed in June of 2021, was overturned by the Custer County Commission last summer.

According to his 21-page complaint, Boren is seeking a declaratory judgment from Judge Stevan Thompson that statements made by the defendants are defamatory and therefore not protected by the First Amendment. Those statements include claims that Boren needed Custer County or Forest Service permission to land his aircraft; that he had been unlawfully landing his aircraft on his pasture for years and “lied” to authorities about the use; and that he intentionally misled government officials into believing that he was building an irrigation system on his pasture in order to keep his “airport” secret.

The latter accusation was essentially an "assertion that Boren had committed a federal felony—lying to a federal official—and a state misdemeanor,” Banducci wrote.

“Fosbury, Michael and the opposition group intentionally disseminated these defamatory statements concerning Boren knowing they would harm Boren’s reputation, subject him to ridicule and anger from the community and jeopardize Boren’s continued use of his pasture as a landing area for his aircraft,” the lawsuit states. “Fosbury, Michael and the opposition group made these defamatory statements so they could characterize Boren as a brazen violator of state and federal law and thereby motivate the U.S. Forest Service to take action against him.

"Defendants have ignored Boren’s overtures at resolving his differences with defendants and defendants continue to expand upon and spread these malicious falsehoods to anyone who will listen ... As a consequence, Boren and his family have received death threats and have become the subjects of ridicule within the community and state."

Boren has also requested a jury trial to recover damages “equal to the amounts” that he has expended in attempting to preserve his reputation, “as well as general damages in an amount to be proved at trial."

“Left with no options, Boren has resolved to repair his reputation in the courts," Banducci wrote.

Boren doubles down on previous claims

Since last spring, Boren has asserted that he has a right through Idaho’s Right to Farm Act to use his landing strip for agricultural purposes and that his opponents have no proof that his helicopter use was for other than agricultural purposes. He has also repeatedly stressed that the pasture on his property could be useful in emergency circumstances for ailing planes or air ambulance landings. 

Over a year ago—on May 6, 2021—the Custer County Planning and Zoning commissioners approved Boren’s permit for his private airstrip under the condition that it would be used for “limited” personal and emergency flights and would not expand in the future. The Custer County Commissioners later upheld that decision in a 3-0 vote in August.

At earlier P&Z meetings at the Challis Community Event Center and in written comments, airstrip critics, including the Blaine County commissioners, argued that planes flying in and out would disrupt the natural environment of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. At one such meeting in April 2021, Boren told commissioners and the crowd that his intent was simply to register his landing strip for non-public emergency use with the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It would be open to somebody who lost an engine or had a serious problem in the air [and] to emergency medical services,” he said at the time.

Boren also refuted claims made in letters to the commission that his pasture landing area was a built-out “airport” and said that he needed his aircraft—a Eurocopter AS350 “Squirrel” helicopter, according to its N-number—to oversee ranch operations.

“We didn’t build an airport. You’ve probably heard in a lot of letters that we built a big airport. We didn’t build an airport. We land in an irrigated pasture,” Boren said at the meeting, adding that he was “fully aware that people can have a ranch, and do a really good job with it, without having to use aircraft.

“But I’m not one of those people. The way I do [ranching], I need [the helicopter],” he said.

According to flight-tracking site FlightAware, the landing area on Boren's property—listed as “ID39” “Hell Roaring Ranch Airport”—was used for a round-trip between Hailey and Hell Roaring Ranch on June 2. 

Op-ed, livestream targeted in lawsuit

According to the lawsuit, Boren is also suing Gadwa, the commander of Sawtooth Search and Rescue and former president of the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical association, for his role in the opposition group. 

In August 2021, Gadwa wrote in an opinion piece published in the Idaho Falls Post Register that Boren had lied to regulators about fixing irrigation on his pasture “when it was obvious that he had graded an airstrip.”

The piece, “Speak Up to Save Sawtooths from Illegal Airport"—co-authored by Backwood Mountain Sports owner Andy Munter and Rocky Mountain Hardware owner Patsy Nickum—also claimed that the airstrip was illegal.

“Michael Boren, a multi-millionaire from Boise, is illegally operating an airport in the Sawtooth Valley without permits. Under Custer County Code, an airstrip is defined as an airport,” they wrote. "Not only is he out of compliance with his scenic easement, but he also neglected to register with the Federal Aviation Administration 90 days before beginning construction of a private airstrip. He failed to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act for 2,000 gallons of fuel stored in proximity to the Salmon River, and never filed a notice of intent or underwent evaluation and proper mitigation necessary before bulldozing potential wetlands."

Gadwa also noted in the piece that public airports are located in Stanley to the north and Smiley Creek, within 15 miles of Boren’s property, and Boren's landing strip had little benefit to the public. 

“Air ambulance helicopters can land just about anywhere … arguments that [the airstrip] is needed for public safety are moot,” the piece stated.

Boren is partly suing Conti for defamation over comments made during a livestream of his YouTube video, according to the lawsuit.

“In advance of his presentation, Conti promised his viewers that their ‘blood [would] boil’ upon hearing what Conti had to say about the ‘billionaire a--hole’ who had ‘illegally’ constructed an airport on his ranch property. Conti also advertised the presentation with a picture of Boren with the word ‘hole’ in bold red letters and a bold red arrow pointing at Boren," Banducci stated. 

The suit further claims that Conti also falsely stated in his video that Boren had flown his helicopter "illegally" and "intimidated" construction workers who were building a public Forest Service trail.

(Boren made headlines in 2020 in an unrelated incident, when he allegedly hared crews building on his brother David Boren's property—the nearby Sawtooth Mountain Ranch—by hovering in his helicopter close to the ground. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion for preliminary injunction against Boren, but later withdrew that motion.)

Boren "graciously" invited Conti to his airstrip "to get the other side of the story," the lawsuit continues, but Conti refused "and threatened ... that if Boren did not pay him $100,000, Conti would continue to circulate the defamatory YouTube presentation."

“This, perhaps more than anything else, demonstrates Conti’s malice," Banducci stated. 


  1. Nice hangar. Good for this guy, the anti airport/airplane mentality has gotten out of hand. Nice to see him standing up. Wish I could land there. Might have to have a "rough engine" in that area.

  2. They will destroy Idaho as they destroyed California - both the environment and the politics.

    1. Flying low over the trail workers is a violation of aviation law. The FAA needs to look into pulling Boren's license.

    2. The rest of the story is that the trail was being built in 2020 on the easement across the man's land when the A-Team style encounter happened. Dispute has since been dismissed. Funny to note that "obscene gestures" were being made by people in the chopper. Has to be more to the story than just a random event.

    3. Paging Admiral Ackbar.... There is a 13 June meeting coming where the definitions related to "what is an airport" are being tweaked. See page 2, here:

    4. "Who is "they?""

      I think it's pretty clear there has been an increase in anti-aviation related activities in the recent decades. For example, those who choose to live near an airport then complain about the noise and try to get it closed. Or in this case, a private land owner well outside of any populated area who wants to use his land as a private airstrip for whatever reason (there are "R" strips all over the nation). In this case, it's environmentalists. The same I'm sure who have no problem with windmill farms killing migratory birds and wreaking noise havoc on wildlife.

  3. The most dangerous thing I see here in the Midwest are California license plates. There should be a wall to keep them from contaminating the rest of the country.

    1. Same with the states in the South from Texas to the Carolinas. They are being invaded by a plague of locusts from CA, NY, NJ, and IL fleeing their wrecked economies, destroyed safe living conditions, and out of control cost of living. Said people move and then bring their economy and living conditions wrecking Democrat voting with them.

  4. Anybody who owns 480 acres and pays the property tax on it ought to be able to land their helicopter or aircraft there without consulting any other party. Hope he wins and imposes punitive costs on all involved that poked at him.

    It's nobody else's business. It certainly should not be some third party's discretion to determine what he needs or impose limitations.

  5. Lock people down. Lie to them. Take their jobs. Hijack their schools. Mock their faith. Open borders. Drugs (heroin/fentanyl, OxyContin) are cheaper and more available than ever. Make fuel, food, and shelter unaffordable.
    Liberal progress.

    1. Speaking of open borders and the lunatic left wanting to confiscate the guns of law abiding citizens, do they not understand that guns are flowing as freely as the drugs across their beloved open borders from the South?

  6. What have Dems said condemning Chuck U Schumer's outrageous comments on the steps of SCOTUS re Gorsuch and Kavanaugh? Crickets.

    1. Schumer's security detail should be removed and dedicated to Justices Gorsuch's and Kavanaugh's families.