Friday, January 9, 2009

Tower tussle

Now Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has weighed in urging the U.S. Forest Service to approve a 90-foot cell tower within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area to improve emergency communications.

No one in good conscience can oppose saving lives through high-tech communications. However, better communications are not as simple as putting up a tower.

First, any tower must comply with rules governing construction of structures within the SNRA. The SNRA's enabling legislation provided strict rules for structures that impact views within this special place, and the federal government spent millions to buy scenic easements from developers to protect those views.

Making an exception for cell towers could require more than the flick of a pen by a forest supervisor. It could require a change in the enabling legislation.

Second, construction of a tower will not guarantee phone service. Tower companies are in the business of constructing towers, not providing cell service. That has to come from service providers who are in the business of making money and who are accustomed to providing service where customers are a lot more abundant than in the wilds of Idaho.

Should the Forest Service change its mind or should the enabling legislation be amended to allow tower installation, tower companies must be required to produce long-term contracts with at least a single service provider before any tower is built.

Doing less could blast a hole in the laws that protect wild lands and open them up to commercial speculation. Done right, the nation can keep wild lands wild and have reasonable access to emergency services.

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