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Can't See the Forest For the Towers

The National Park Service is getting some static over the placement of cell phone towers on public lands.
 
 
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Cozy nights around the campfire interrupted by someone yammering away about business. The solitude of dawn broken by a tinny ring.

These are the kind of complaints campers and hikers have reported since cell phone towers have popped up in national parks, providing cell phone service to these remote areas.

But the threats the towers pose to America's parks and forests go deeper than aural annoyances, according to critics who don't want to see cell phone towers on National Park Service land. Depending on their placement, the towers often rise as unnatural behemoths amid otherwise idyllic natural settings. One of the most egregious is at the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone, where a 100-foot cell phone tower constructed in 2001 now stands directly in view of the famous gusher.

"Cell phone towers compromise the beauty of the park system as a whole," said Chas Offutt, communications director for the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

"Unshielded by trees and without any attempt at camouflage, the stark, silvery pole and its three antennas are clearly visible from much of what has been legally designated as the Old Faithful Historic District," said a recent PEER press release.

Lee Dickinson, the director of special use programs for the National Park Service, notes that an NPS inventory being undertaken shows that there are telecommunications receivers in about 35 of the country's 388 sites managed by NPS. This number includes towers as well as receptors placed on existing buildings or structures. It is not clear yet how many towers total have been built; at Yellowstone National Park there are six.

Dickinson said that while some visitors do have complaints about the unsightly towers, they have proved to be beneficial for emergency response and communications. The companies building the towers pay a land use fee depending on market value for the land in question, and reimburse the specific park for costs incurred in locating and maintaining the tower. The land use fee is supposed to go directly to the U.S. general treasury, meaning there is no economic incentive for any given park to construct towers.

But on Sept. 13, PEER announced findings that money from the concessions paid by two wireless phone companies to build towers in Yellowstone National Park were kept in the park budget, rather than deposited with the U.S. treasury. They also note that as part of a contract that ended in 1999, park employees received about 70 free phones and free minute plans donated by the company MetaCom, which was later bought by Western Wireless. Yellowstone collects rental fees of $500 per month on each of six rights-of-way, adding up to about $36,000 a year. Two of the rights-of-way are rented by the Union Telephone Company of Wyoming and four by Western Wireless Corporation.

Frank Buono, a retired long-time NPS employee, explains why the news of Yellowstone keeping land use revenue from the towers is troubling to him. When the benefits of special use contracts like the cell towers stay within a specific park, even going to specific employees as happened with the phones, it creates an incentive for parks to get involved in partnerships and investments from private companies. In some cases, as with parks that have rich mineral deposits, the private investment could be highly disruptive and environmentally harmful. Other special use concessions often granted on park service sites include grazing rights and rights-of-way for telephone and electrical lines and irrigation.

"If parks can lease out buildings or land or resources to keep money in the park budget, there's a tremendous amount of incentive for them to do it," Buono said. "If it just goes to the treasury there's not that much incentive.

Yellowstone keeping the money, insists Buono, sets a terrible precedent. "Common sense says park managers will easily succumb if they can see this revenue stream coming into the park."

Al Nash, a Yellowstone ranger who has spent much of his career at the park, doesn't think the towers are overly harmful. He notes that the amount of revenue in question – roughly hundreds of dollars a month in rent for each tower – is a drop in the bucket for a park the size of Yellowstone, which receives about three million visitors a year. He says it is not clear Yellowstone violated any rules by not turning land use fees over to the treasury, but they are investigating the regulations, "and if we are supposed to be turning over money, then that will be done."

"Under the Telecommunications Act (of 1996) we're in a position that if there is a request to provide services, we have to recognize the request and review it," he said. "We think some level of cell coverage is important, especially for safety aspects. Because of new privacy laws there are also situations where we aren't allowed to discuss situations (involving injuries or health problems) over two-way radio but cell phones provide an extra level of privacy. Most of our rangers feel like cell coverage enhances our ability to do our jobs."

Nash said the park has received complaints about the tower near Old Faithful, and park officials are talking with the company and state preservation officials about ways it could be made less intrusive, including possibly lowering or camouflaging it.

The debate over cell phone towers and revenue from special use concessions in general is especially relevant now with national parks feeling the effects of budget cuts. A report by the National Parks Conservation Association that came out early this year said the National Park Service is under-funded by $600 million, with $50 million of that diverted to fund extra homeland security at "icons" like the Golden Gate Bridge and Statue of Liberty.

"There's no question it's a big challenge to do all we need to do with the funds available," said Nash. "If there's a sewer that needs to be fixed, that's us. If there's an ambulance needed, that's us. This is such a special place to so many people, we really have a challenge providing the services people expect while holding to our mission, which is protecting the natural resources."

Many park visitors say they are not against cell towers if they are placed in already developed areas or in places where they don't block cherished views; however, they want public comment on their placement to be mandated, as opposed to the current situation where there is rarely a chance for public input on the plans.

Other people don't want to see towers at all.

"They're building cell phone towers in inappropriate places because of the potential to earn revenue," said Scott Silver, an Oregon scientist and environmentalist. "This administration is starving (the park service) for funding and forcing them to whore themselves out. And the idea of safety isn't enough of a reason.

"There are many of us who say part of the whole idea of going out in the wilderness is to challenge yourself and take that responsibility and not overreach," he continued.

"You set off into the wilderness as close to the primitive man of yesteryear as possible. If you're carrying a cell phone, you'll think 'I can cross that ice field, because if something goes wrong I'll just make a call.'"

Kari Lydersen , a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago.