YOU HAVE A CELL PHONE, and you're driving in the woods or around a mountain, and suddenly the signal fades. You lose your conversation. Maybe you call back in a few minutes, maybe you just think about something else.
Not if you are a member of the United States Congress. No sirree. If you are Mr. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and you are elected to represent your fellow Americans on the essential questions of the day and you are driving through Rock Creek Park and your phone fades for a few moments, you must hold hearings! You must write letters demanding action! You must have your way!
"We have heard numerous complaints from our colleagues about their inability to conduct cellular telecommunications in Rock Creek Park," Daschle and six other lawmakers wrote in an angry missive to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "These repeated expressions of congressional concern are being ignored."
And so, there we were, in a packed hearing room on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, in a confrontation as basic as they get. Progress vs. nature, technology vs. green. Members of the National Capital Planning Commission -- appointed by the president and the mayor, with the feds in the majority, of course -- would get to decide. Well, they would if they voted as the members of Congress expected them to.
With the National Park Service on its side, Bell Atlantic wants to erect two antenna poles that will tower up to 130 feet over Rock Creek Park to give its cell phone customers uninterrupted coverage. The phone company has met a wave of resistance from local residents, park lovers, the mayor and a slew of local officials.
On the surface, it's a standard zoning dispute, but this is also the original clash of American values, one that goes back to the building of the railroads and further, to the rise of the steam engine. From Walden Pond to Love Canal, we've been suspicious of progress and technology even as we grow dependent on both. We love e-mail and voice mail even as we curse their insistent omnipresence.
What we couldn't even imagine a few years ago somehow becomes a "necessity" immediately after we figure out how to use the dang thing.
And now cell phones in the wilderness -- an urban wilderness, to be sure, but 1,700-odd acres of forest none-theless, an oasis from the clamor of the city.
That image is comforting for people like Ann Renshaw of Chevy Chase, D.C., whose voice cracked as she told me about her "precious park, assaulted from all sides, with the noise and the pollution and the traffic. And now here comes a commercial venture. I'm all for technology, but not in the park. The park is where I want to go to lose myself in nature."
Nature-lovers at the hearing, their passion palpable, pleaded for a respite from the wired world. There was menacing talk of cancer scares and good logic about the forest of steel towers that could grow if authorities allow this scarring of the park. Birders told of 145 different kinds of birds that hang out near the same maintenance yard where Bell Atlantic wants to build a tower. There were horror stories about millions of birds that died flying into phone towers at night.
The other side had it tougher. To create the illusion of popular support, Bell Atlantic's lawyers (what beautiful suits!) recruited members of community groups that the company happens to support with generous contributions. They trooped forward to testify to their "need" to stay connected at all times.
Never mind that other phone companies get their signals into the park just fine. The issue here, the lawyers said, spinning madly, is safety. Never mind that there has been exactly one homicide in all of Rock Creek Park in five years. A Bell Atlantic executive even managed to get Littleton, Colo., into his two-minute plea.
Things get a bit tense in these battles. In the hallway, as Metropolitan Police officer Curt Sloane told me it was essential for citizens to be able to report crimes from their cars, anti-towers activist Elizabeth Berry interrupted: "Don't drug dealers also use cell phones?"
To which Bell Atlantic's PR woman, Audrey Schaefer, snapped, "They use pens, too -- and you've got one!"
Ah, democracy in action. But the District is no democracy. It is a colony. The planning commission dared to ask for a study of the towers issue. That same evening, Daschle -- who last year got more campaign cash from Bell Atlantic than any other Democratic senator -- attached an amendment to the D.C. budget. Debate over. Whatever the final budget decrees, Daschle intended his word to be final. "The park is located in the District, but it is a federal park," was Daschle's defense of his sneak attack. "I hope Mayor Williams and others eventually will agree." If they don't, too bad. The Lords of the Hill shall prevail; in the end, they'll be able to chat with their mistresses, their lobbyist pals or their friendly phone company contributors as they drive through the park, oblivious to its marred beauty.
Marc Fisher's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.