Microwaveable wilderness

 

CALIFORNIA

The infrastructure of the information age is still firmly rooted on the ground - and when that ground is designated wilderness, things can get a little complicated. In Death Valley National Park, a microwave repeater tower, used to relay telephone calls across the rugged terrain, is under scrutiny by environmental groups.

The 35-foot high Southwestern Bell tower was built in 1983 on Mormon Peak, which at that time was BLM land. In 1994, however, the area was designated wilderness and folded into the national park. The environmental groups, which were tipped off to the tower's existence last year, say that it should have undergone a National Environmental Protection Act assessment at the time.

There's a catch, though. "All of the Death Valley phone connections go through the relay," Park Service environmental specialist Richard Anderson said in a phone interview, "including the line we're talking on now."

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Wilderness Watch have asked both the FCC and the Park Service to review the case. The FCC says it's the Park Service's bailiwick, and the Park Service's Anderson says the tower will stay. The park has also given Southwestern Bell the go-ahead to add high-speed data line capability and an additional 15 feet to the tower.

PEER plans to pursue the case, says general counsel Dan Meyer, because it could set a precedent for challenging "about 20 other towers in California that have gone up without review."