Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New Communications Towers Must Account for Risks to Birds

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC must consider the risk that communication towers pose for birds when they approve new construction projects.

The Federal Communications Commission must study the effect of rapidly sprouting communications towers on migratory birds and give the public a chance to request environmental reviews on new tower applications, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that millions of warblers, thrushes and other birds die each year because continuously burning lights atop those towers can disorient them in bad weather.

The 2-1 decision affects only towers along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida, a major route for migrating birds.

But environmentalists hope the ruling will spur the FCC to approve proposed rules that would mandate white strobe lights on new towers nationwide. Studies have shown that those lights aren't as disorienting to birds and could cut deaths by 70%....

Communications towers taller than 200 feet require lights so that airplane pilots can see them at night. But during bad weather migratory birds can mistake the lights for the stars they use to navigate. The disoriented birds circle the towers endlessly. Some crash into the towers, their guy wires or other birds. Others fall to the ground from exhaustion....

The court ruled that the FCC was justified in not taking steps to reduce bird deaths specifically on the Gulf Coast because it had already started studying the issue nationwide. In November 2006, FCC staff proposed requiring more bird-friendly tower lights. The agency is still considering that proposal.

But the court found that the FCC had erred when it decided it didn't have to do an environmental assessment or consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service. It sent those issues back to the FCC on Tuesday.

It also said the FCC must determine how to give the public notice of new tower applications. The FCC now publicizes applications only after they have been approved.
This ruling is a major victory for environmental groups, but it is unfortunate that it took a lawsuit to force the FCC to act on this issue. The threat that towers pose to birds has been well-known and documented for some time. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife estimates that towers kill about 4.5 million migratory birds per year. With the number of towers increasing about 6 to 8 percent per year, that number is sure to rise without changes in tower design. Birds killed at towers include 90 threatened or endangered species and 124 species of conservation concern. On at least one occasion, three towers in Wichita killed several thousand Lapland Longspurs in a single night. Other tower kills have ranged from a handful to several hundred per night.

In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued guidelines for the siting and construction of new communications towers. Currently the guidelines are voluntary, but the FCC could act to give the guidelines more teeth. Following the guidelines would reduce the need for new towers and make new towers less deadly. Among the rules are the following:
2. If collocation is not feasible and a new tower or towers are to be constructed, communications service providers should be strongly encouraged to construct towers no more than 199 feet above ground level (AGL), using construction techniques which do not require guy wires (e.g., use a lattice structure, monopole, etc.). Such towers should be unlighted if Federal Aviation Administration regulations permit.

4. If at all possible, new towers should be sited within existing “antenna farms” (clusters of towers). Towers should not be sited in or near wetlands, other known bird concentration areas (e.g., state or Federal refuges, staging areas, rookeries), in known migratory or daily movement flyways, or in habitat of threatened or endangered species. Towers should not be sited in areas with a high incidence of fog, mist, and low ceilings.

5. If taller (>199 feet AGL) towers requiring lights for aviation safety must be constructed, the minimum amount of pilot warning and obstruction avoidance lighting required by the FAA should be used. Unless otherwise required by the FAA, only white (preferable) or red strobe lights should be used at night, and these should be the minimum number, minimum intensity, and minimum number of flashes per minute (longest duration between flashes) allowable by the FAA. The use of solid red or pulsating red warning lights at night should be avoided. Current research indicates that solid or pulsating (beacon) red lights attract night-migrating birds at a much higher rate than white strobe lights. Red strobe lights have not yet been studied.

8. If significant numbers of breeding, feeding, or roosting birds are known to habitually use the proposed tower construction area, relocation to an alternate site should be recommended. If this is not an option, seasonal restrictions on construction may be advisable in order to avoid disturbance during periods of high bird activity.
More information is available from the American Bird Conservancy and Tower Kill.