Mixed signals?

Mixed signals?
A cellphone tower in Yellowstone park. "Technology has moved forward and policy hasn't kept pace," says the Sierra Club's Maribeth Oakes. (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility)
At least 30 national parks sprout cellphone towers and antennas, a new government survey shows, and some environmentalists fear a forest of steel and concrete will spring up unless the National Park Service cracks down.

Telecommunications structures have popped up in Yosemite, Joshua Tree and six other parks in California, and pressure to build more communications towers will likely grow as cellular service providers turn their attention from cities to rural areas.

Parks "are not paying any attention to what they're giving up," warns Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group.

"Technology has moved forward and policy hasn't kept pace," says Maribeth Oakes, land protection team director for the Sierra Club.

The tower dispute has largely centered on Yellowstone National Park since Western Wireless erected a 100-foot structure on a hill above the Old Faithful Historic District three years ago.

Critics blasted the Park Service for approving it without adequate public hearings. Yellowstone officials admit to the "oversight." The Park Service says it will reconsider the decision.

Meanwhile, Yellowstone counts a total of five towers; two more are pending.

In addition to their aesthetic concerns, critics say the collection of rental fees may pose a conflict of interest. The revenue from private communications antennas — estimated at $3,000 to $14,000 per antenna annually, depending on local rates — goes to the federal treasury, according to the Park Service, to prevent individual parks from capitalizing on tower construction.

But at Yellowstone, administrative officer Joanne Timmins said she was unaware of the mandate. The park uses annual payments, she says, "to offset various kinds of expenses that are incurred by our telecommunications shop." Ruch says such deals give Yellowstone "a direct incentive to commercialize land." Without more controls, he warns, cash-strapped park administrators may trade splendid landscapes for a monthly antenna check.

In Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the cityscape helps conceal the three cellphone towers on-site, says park spokesman Rich Weideman. One antenna near the Golden Gate Bridge matches the international orange of the span. Installation of two more structures is pending in the sprawling urban park.

"Cellphones are critical to us, communicating during emergency situations, so we have almost a vested interest in working with cellphone companies," Weideman says.

Cellphone tower construction, which began in the early 1980s, gained momentum with the passage of the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, which in many cases opens public lands and shields tower builders from construction restrictions.

In Yosemite National Park, spokesman Scott Gediman says companies installed five antennas or "enhancers" at developed sites around Yosemite Valley, Sentinel Dome and Tuolumne Meadows, Wawona and Turtleback Dome. Two more applications are pending.

Besides Yosemite, Joshua Tree and Golden Gate, national parklands in California with antennas are: Mojave, Point Reyes, Redwoods National and State Parks, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and Whiskeytown-Trinity. Some structures stand on lands adjacent to parks.

Typically, companies propose antenna sites to park superintendents, who seek public input and expert advice on whether the equipment endangers wildlife or vistas. But until the Park Service conducted its survey, to which about 80% of 388 units responded, it had not totaled the number of towers, says Lee Dickinson, a Park Service program manager.