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Implications of National Park Status Regarding Radio and Cell Towers

Proponents will try to assure you that no existing or future commercial interests will be affected by national park status. They will purport that national park status will never cause the CNM to become a Class I Area. But their assurances are based only on a present hope, and not the future reality that a number of existing laws could be employed by the National Park Service to inhibit, roll back, or stop development on or around what could be Rim Rock Canyons National Park. Remember, there are several large radio towers roosting above the Monument that might be found to “negatively impact the visual experience of visitors.” Ever heard of the National Park Service “Organic Act?” You will want to learn more once you read this excerpt from this analysis.

Telecommunications Act of 1996 and Viewshed Protections for the National Scenic Trails

A. National Park Service Organic Act

The NPS Organic Act was enacted in 1916 to “promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations.” In carrying out this goal, the NPS was instructed “[t]o promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks . . . by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks . . . which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The Organic Act singles out the national parks’ scenic resources as among those resources with such fundamental importance to the mission of the park system that they are worthy of protection by “such means and measures so as to keep them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Those scenic resources, such as mountain vistas, uninterrupted stretches of wilderness, and cascading waterfalls, that are wholly contained within a park’s boundary are inarguably subject to the Park Service’s preservationist mandate.

More troubling, however, are those scenic resources whose focal point may be located just beyond the park’s formal boundary line. Since these scenic resources emanate from a source outside of the park’s environs, one may argue that under the Organic Act these resources are not subject to the Park Service’s protective authority. Other commentators, however, have suggested that aesthetic and visual resources located outside a park’s boundaries are subject to Park Service regulation. This perspective relies on the common understanding of the term “use” in section 1 of the Organic Act, allowing the NPS to regulate the use of the parks to promote the twin aims of preservation and enjoyment of the resources. If the “use” is located within the confines of the park, then it may be regulated. For uses such as hiking, nature study, and conservation of plants and wildlife, there is little doubt that these uses are subject to regulation because they all occur inside the park itself. Similarly, where a scenic view encompasses a far off vista which may not lie within the park’s formal boundaries, one may argue that the use is located within the park if the user is physically located in the park. The visual resource that the park visitor enjoys is a use occurring within the park’s confines. Therefore, under this interpretation of the Organic Act, the NPS would have the authority to regulate transboundary obstructions that have the potential of degrading a park visitor’s visual experience.

According to this interpretation, the NPS would have the legal authority to regulate the siting of wireless towers outside the trail’s property lines but within the viewshed of the Appalachian Trail. These towers create a visual intrusion on a fundamental resource value which the NPS is obligated to protect under the Organic Act. Even where the telecommunications towers are located outside the boundaries of the protected trail corridor, their very size and composition tend to dominate the landscape and seize the attention of the trail user, and so the effect of placing a telecommunications structure next to the trail can completely destroy a central reason for the trail’s existence.

Although this particular document addresses the Appalachian Trail, the regulations cited potentially affect all NPS-managed areas throughout the country. The Colorado National Monument is nestled in the midst of development. There are radio transmission towers at the top, cell towers in various places around it, water towers, and myriad other structures visible from great distances. And future development of alternative energy resources, such as towering wind farms and solar arrays could be banned altogether. This is yet more evidence that the push to make a functioning and relatively well-balanced local treasure into a problematic national park simply makes no sense.