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Surprise! A New Tower

This is a story of how a 498-foot television tower slipped through the cracks of the federal bureaucracy. In this case, the cracks added up to a canyon running through red tape wide enough to boggle the imagination. The result is the start of construction, with federal blessing, of a giant television tower near the summit of 8,209-foot Big Baldy Ridge, a mere 500 feet from the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park east of Fresno.

Television station KMPH of Visalia/Fresno has been trying to relocate its tower since the early 1980s to deliver better reception to its San Joaquin Valley service area. On March 11, 1982, Supt. Boyd Evison of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks wrote to the Federal Communications Commission saying that he had heard “in a roundabout way” that the FCC was approving construction of a tower on private land within the Sequoia National Forest. The tower would be within half a mile of the Kings Canyon boundary along the Generals Highway linking Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks, which are administered jointly by the Department of the Interior.

If so, Evison said, he asked that a hold be put on the permit due to obvious impacts on the park and possible interference with Park Service emergency radio transmissions. He asked to be kept advised of any further action on the project. “This is important to us since we have no record of knowledge of any official notice of the proposal from FCC,” the alarmed superintendent said. Not to mention, presumably, any notice from the U.S. Forest Service, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency that administers vast areas of federal land adjoining the parks.

That seemed to be the end of the matter until this June when John Rasmussen, an area Sierra Club leader, was hiking in the Sequoia National Forest and happened across freshly poured concrete foundations for a building and the base of a tower a quarter of a mile south of Big Baldy Peak. He then learned that the Forest Service had approved construction of the tower at a new location that is even closer to the National Park boundary and more visible from the Generals Highway and other important features of the park. To meet Federal Aviation Administration rules, the tower would be painted in alternate red and white sections and topped with a red light to warn aircraft.

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Park Service officials said they knew nothing of the construction. The Forest Service had concluded in 1984 from an in-house study that there was no need to follow a formal environmental impact process that would have required public hearings and input from other federal agencies. The in-house environmental assessment report did note that park officials were consulted, but the report made only cursory reference to impact on the park, primarily on views of Baldy Ridge from Generals Highway. The one concession to the environment was to suggest the tower be painted in a natural tone rather than red and white, and that a white strobe light on top might be preferable to red.

The Sierra Club’s Rasmussen said that the tower will have a major visual impact on a large portion of the National Park and surrounding forests. Among other things, it would be visible from a significant stretch of the Sequoia back country and the Jennie Lakes wilderness. He said the local chapter had asked the club’s legal defense fund to consider a lawsuit to stop the project.

A major concern of members of Congress, the National Park Service and of conservation organizations in recent years has been the effect of cumulative development along the boundaries of the parks with spillover impact on the parks themselves. The federal agency normally most involved with such concerns is the Forest Service, since most western national parks are virtually surrounded by national forests. The Forest Service should be the first to alert its federal cousin, the Park Service, of projects like the television tower and keep it constantly advised. The FAA and FCC should have done so as well. The idea that such a project could be approved and construction started with so little consideration of its effect on the park is amazing. The Administration and Congress must make certain this sorry story cannot be repeated.


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