Cell Towers Sneak into National Park - With a Senator's Help

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 28, 2000 (ENS) - After taking an end run around the opposition, a telecommunications giant erected a 130 foot tall cellular telephone antenna in Rock Creek National Park in Washington, D.C. last Saturday. The tower stands as an example of how powerful lobbyists and lawmakers can push through projects that pose definite hazards to wildlife and wilderness - even on lands owned by the American public.

rock creek

The cell tower erected Saturday went up near Rock Creek National Park's Nature Center (Photo courtesy NPS)
The cell tower, the second one that Bell Atlantic has placed in the park, went up in the wee hours of the morning to stymie a planned protest by environmentalists. Local activists had been told by park officials and Bell Atlantic that work would start around 10 am, but by the time they arrived with their placards, the tower was already in place. The protesters marched anyway, waving signs reading "Donít sell out the park" and chanting "The park is ours - no cell towers!"

The protesters and their parent groups fear the towers could portend an army of steel structures marching across parks and other federal lands across the United States. The 1996 Telecommunications Act requires federal land to be accessible to wireless services if needed.

"It said the federal government would go out of its way to find places for these on public land," said David Barna, chief of public affairs for the National Park Service (NPS).

But the Act also said that cell tower placement must not harm the environment, a requirement that seems contradictory to Larry Bohlen, the director of Health and Environment Programs for Friends of the Earth (FOE).

"Theyíre going to kill migratory birds, and they ruin the scenery," Bohlen told ENS. "Most Americans go to our National Parks to get away from overdevelopment."

dead birds

Millions of birds die each year in nightime collisions with manmade towers (Photo courtesy Harry B. Barrett)
Communications towers pose a special danger to some 350 species of night migrating songbirds, more so on foggy nights with low visibility and few clouds. For some as yet unknown reason, birds become attracted to towers with pilot warning lights, which are required for all towers taller than 200 feet. The confused birds mill around the towers, colliding with guy wires, the towers, other birds or the ground. Scientists believe that more than four million birds are killed every year in North America in collisions with communications towers.

Rock Creek National Park is a swath of green surrounded by heavy development. The parkís tall trees and running water stand out like a landing strip for migratory birds. Now, that flight path may lead them straight into trouble.

Barna told ENS that the National Park Service has two missions: to preserve and protect resources for future generations and provide for their use. Some of those uses - like cell towers and aircraft overflights - could not have been envisioned by the authors of the original NPS rules in 1916.

"Instead of just saying, no, weíre not going to do this," Barna said, the 1996 Telecommunications Act makes the National Park Service, "really look and see where it is and where itís not appropriate."


The cell tower erected at Rock Creek on Saturday is a monopole, a single, unbranching tower like this one (Photo courtesy Northland Technology)
In large National Parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, entire communities may exist inside park boundaries. Placing cell towers on existing maintenance grounds would likely fall on the "appropriate" list, Barna said. "Could you put one in a place like that without the public seeing it? Probably," he said. "So why is that a problem?"

Unfortunately, many undeveloped federal lands occupy the same real estate that telecommunications companies covet for their equipment. Cell towers, radio antennas and other facilities require line of sight with other antennas in order to produce a clear signal. That means they need high ground, like hills and mountains - just the types of areas that the U.S. often sets aside as public land.

Rock Creek held some of the only high ground in the area available for new towers. It was also one of the few areas in the nationís cellular-driven capital that did not have good cell coverage. Commuters traveling through the Park on the way to work would often lose their signals on the way.

That minor inconvenience was enough to make U.S. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, seek a solution. Daschle authored a rider on the District of Columbia appropriations bill to push through the towers. The bill, rider attached, passed last November, ending a two year battle between opponents and proponents of better cell coverage in the Park.

Bell Atlantic first petitioned the National Capital Planning Commission, which makes decisions concerning federal land in the District, in 1998, asking permission to erect two antennas. The commission at first opposed the idea, rejecting the companyís petition more than once.


Senator Tom Daschle has pushed to ensure that high speed Internet and telecommunications services reach rural America as rapidly as they have infiltrated urban areas (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
In its environmental assessment of the tower petition, the National Park Service said it was "very concerned about possible aggregate effects on park resources resulting from co-located facilities at these sites. While it may be possible to mitigate the impacts of a single facility at a site, the added impacts of additional facilities may be more difficult to mitigate, may result in a derogation of park resources and may directly conflict with park operations."

President Bill Clinton and District Mayor Tony Williams, who have representatives on the commission, both opposed the towers as well.

But Daschle, who has received campaign donations from Bell Atlantic, proved to be a powerful force.

In December 1998, Daschle and six of his Congressional colleagues wrote a stern letter to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, pressuring him to expedite approval of Bell Atlanticís petition. The letter emphasized public safety over environmental issues, citing the U.S. Park Policeís desire to have cell coverage for emergency situations. The writers also cited "numerous complaints from our colleagues about their inability to conduct cellular telecommunications in Rock Creek Park."

Under increasing pressure, the commission continued to vote against the towers, and to order evaluations of alternative sites. At its July meeting, after the commission tabled the issue for a second time, it received a blatant warning that it was running out of time to make a decision.

Melissa Wojciak, who represented Representative Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, on the commission, warned that "others will go around you and the towers will be built. I will guarantee Congress would do that."

Wojciak was right. Daschleís budget rider not only mandated that the two towers be built, it also required that the director of the National Park Service take swift action to approve new applications to place cell towers on federal lands within the district, without being bound by decisions made by the Commission or any other area commission or authority.

The rider would take control of local land use decisions out of the hands of local administrators. President Clinton vetoed the District budget, partly because of the cell tower rider.


Communications towers need lights to warn off aircraft, but these same lights seem to attract migratory birds (Photo courtesy Northland Technology)
But in early November, Clinton agreed to sign the budget bill, with the cell tower rider, to remove it from another, larger spending bill. Clintonís representative to the Commission helped persuade the group to approve the cell towers by an 8-4 vote.

Clinton was under pressure to pass the District budget, but was not ready to pass the then current version of the Interior Appropriations bill it was attached to, which contained numerous anti-environmental riders of its own. In effect, Clinton let the cell tower issue pass in order to concentrate on larger environmental issues.

However, environmentalists fear the cell tower problem could balloon out of control, now that the Rock Creek precedent has been set.

"It does set a pretty nasty precedent," said Bohlen. "We guess every Senatorís going to want their own personal tower after this. The problem is, they may become memorials to dead birds."

Already, Bell Atlantic has filed another request, to erect a 150 foot tower in Great Falls National Park, Virginia.

Friends of the Earth hopes the National Park Service will set guidelines for communications tower placements in all the properties it oversees - 54 National Parks and hundreds of other historic sites, monuments, seashores, scenic trails and more. But Barna says he is not aware of any attempt to write national guidelines, and in any case, they would be secondary to judgments made by local superintendents.

"Theyíre not all the same and we canít manage them all the same," he said.


As more communications towers are built in natural areas, more birds are likely to die (Photo courtesy Fatal Light Awareness Program)
When asked whether the National Park Service would consider placing cell towers in wilderness areas to provide emergency coverage for backcountry visitors, Barna said he did not think that would be a priority.

"We donít believe that the pressure from telecommunication industry is about public health and safety," Barna said. "For the most part, people donít bring them with them for public safety, they bring them to talk."

"Certainly these things have saved lives," he said, noting the rescue of a stranded climber on Mt. Rainier in Washington state last year, made possible by the cell phone carried by a passing skier. "Itís kind of a mixed bag for us."

Meanwhile, environmentalists will continue to fight against placing cell towers within natural areas. "If a Senator can get a tower in a park, then they can stop a tower in a park," said Bohlen. "Citizens should go straight to their Senators and demand parks free from towers."