- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

Three environmental groups are suing the Federal Communications Commission to force it to do what Mother Nature cannot: Stop birds from slamming into cell phone towers.
The groups filed the lawsuit last week in federal court in Washington. It targets towers that are higher than 200 feet on land near the Gulf of Mexico, where many birds stop during spring and fall migrations.
The groups the American Bird Conservancy, the Forest Conservation Council and the Friends of the Earth say migratory birds are crucial to the nation's environmental and economic health, spokesmen said.
"These birds are part of the web of life," said Norman L. Dean, executive director of Friends of the Earth.
"Death by tower" is more of a threat than most Americans realize, according to the environmentalists, who cite federal research that could knock even a casual bird lover over with a feather.
Between 5 million and 50 million birds die each year when they slam into towers that are used to power cellular telephones, pagers, televisions and radios, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The winged victims include some of the most endangered migratory songbirds, such as the black rail, Bell's vireo, the golden-winged warbler and Henslow's sparrow, according to the environmentalists.
The towers' lights attract the birds, researchers say. Most songbirds fly at night and orient themselves by the stars, but in bad weather they could mistake tower lights for stars, according to Thomas Sherry, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans who specializes in bird migrations.
The lawsuit would force the FCC to review the danger to birds before the towers are built. They also want existing towers to use devices to keep the birds away, including high-pitched infra-sound and colored lights.
"We're not trying to make cell phone users feel guilty. I have a cell phone," Mr. Dean said.
An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit. Agency guidelines require tower builders to weigh the risks to endangered species, but not migratory birds in particular, said Jeff Steinberg, FCC's deputy chief of the commercial wireless division.
The Personal Communications Industry Association, a trade group for cell phone companies, has essentially told the environmentalists to go fly a kite.
The group issued a press release last week that called the lawsuit "a waste of FCC and judicial time."
Not as many birds are killed as the environmentalists claim, said Andrea Bruns, the association's director of governmental relations.
"The evidence that is out there tends to be outdated and it's sort of unscientific," she said.
John Talberth, the Forest Conservation Council's conservation director, said Miss Bruns' statement was "pure bunk."
Now that environmentalists have targeted telecommunications towers, are tall buildings, bridges, smokestacks and power lines next?
Not necessarily, Mr. Talberth said. The federal government doesn't have jurisdiction over other structures that threaten birds, but it can do something about the towers.
"There is a lot the FCC can do to mitigate this problem," Mr. Talberth said.
Gavin G. Shire, director of communications technology for the American Bird Conservancy, said the lawsuit was the last resort for the groups, which have been trying since 2000 to persuade the FCC to do more to protect birds.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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