Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Resolving the safety vs. scenery debate

The massive infusion of cell phones into American culture was bound to create controversy in places like ours where civilization meets the Great Silence.

Cell phones have provided electronic connections between people and services unknown to earlier generations.

The earlier generations knew that if a tire blew out on their car in the middle of nowhere they would have to change it themselves or accept the help of a stranger to drive them to the nearest town where they could contract a wrecker to retrieve the disabled car.

They also knew that if they became injured in the backcountry, it would be many hours, if not days, until help might arrive. The knowledge was just a fact of life in the Great Silence—and, rarely, of death.

Today, people drive with the idea that if the car's transmission seizes up, help is no more than a cell-phone call away. On major highways, that's more often true than not. But on scenic byways and dirt tracks, it's not always true.

Today, many people explore the backcountry with the often mistaken belief that if they get in trouble, that help is just a phone call and a helicopter away.

The controversy that has sprung up over a proposed 90-foot cell tower near Galena Summit inside the Sawtooth National Recreation area was inevitable. As proposed, the tower would be camouflaged as a tree, one very much taller than all of the real trees.

The proposal ran smack into the SNRA's enabling legislation under which taxpayers spent millions to purchase scenic easements from developers in the center of what is arguably the most beautiful place in Idaho.

It's not the first controversy generated by a clash between technology and the Great Silence. Snowmobile enthusiasts and cross-country skiers clashed for years over mechanized vs. human-powered travel inside the SNRA. The argument was noisy and contentious. In the middle of it, vandals torched a backcountry yurt.

Yet, the efforts of people who were driven to the bargaining table by an insistent U.S. Forest Service and who became willing to listen and work with people of unlike minds resulted in a use agreement that governs where snowmobiles may operate and where skiers can find utter solitude in the SNRA. A similar process could resolve the safety vs. scenery debate that's raging.

Many issues and options exist that haven't been fully explored together by cell tower advocates, emergency service providers, protectors of the Great Silence, the U.S. Forest Service and the public.

Negotiations are surely worth a try.

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