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The Communications Tower Debate

NPR’s Living on Earth

November 15, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Of all the modern emblems now invading rural America none seemed so benign as the electronic cottage. Professionals who migrated to the country thought they could phone, fax, and roam the internet without fear that the new communications gear would disturb the solitude.

How naive. Here in heavily forested northern Michigan, the environmental costs of the communications revolution is quickly becoming apparent. A wireless phone company has proposed building a 250-foot tower on one of Benzie County’s most prominent timber-cloaked summits. It is designed to carry an array of antennas and receivers for the next generation of cellular phone technology.

The tower also is becoming a monument to an even more powerful force: a political backlash generated by the folly of a new industry trying to block public debate.

In 1996, the White House and Congress teamed up with the wireless industry to pass the Telecommunications Act. On the way to passage, industry lobbyists quietly worked to squelch the grass roots opposition they knew would develop over unsightly communications towers. They convinced Congress to write new rules that drastically limit the traditional authority of local governments and citizens to oversee uses of land.

Lawmakers thought they were doing the industry a favor by kicking democratic discourse in the teeth. They were wrong. Here and in other regions, hundreds of local governments have rebelled. They are enacting moratoriums on construction, filing lawsuits, holding public meetings, conducting environmental reviews, and taking other measures to halt new towers.

To be sure, local review of major projects has never been easy. But as history shows, it’s essential.

More than 40 years ago, nuclear reactor technology was developed in secret. By blocking public comment, the government ignored well-founded concerns about safety and cost. Such behavior sowed rampant citizen distrust. It took just one major accident at Three Mile Island to kill the industry in the United States.

There are manifest reasons for local governments to want to review applications for new communications towers. Thousands could be built in rural America. With them come miles of new access roads and openings in the forest.

In an era when leaders of both parties have declared the end to big government, the Telecommunications Act is an old-fashioned abrogation of power. And just as in the case of nuclear power, the real victim is turning out to be the industry itself.

This past summer, several of the largest companies notified the government they were in danger of defaulting on billions of dollars in loans for communications licenses. Among the reasons they cited: Fierce local opposition to building new towers.

Keith Schneider, an environmental writer, is executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Benzonia.

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