Jim Dougherty had threatened to lie down in front of a giant crane to stop yesterday's erection of a 130-foot Bell Atlantic cellular telephone antenna in Rock Creek Park.
As it turned out, Dougherty, a Sierra Club member, was lying down when the tower was installed--in his bed. Although group members and other environmental demonstrators had been told work would start about 10 a.m., Bell Atlantic contractors arrived at the park's maintenance yard at 1 a.m. and had completed the job by 6 a.m.
"There were about 20 trucks here," said Elizabeth Berry, a Sierra Club member who watched the Bell Atlantic crew finish installing the tower, one of two that have been erected in the park. "There were many, many people. The floodlights went all the way back to the tree line. It was like a James Bond movie when you happen upon the bad guys."
By the time Dougherty and 33 other protesters arrived at the maintenance yard near the Nature Center Stables, the antenna already stood some 60 feet above the tallest tree. The protesters carried out their demonstration anyway, carrying signs that read, "No Bell Towers," and chanting, "The park is ours, no cell towers!" in freezing temperatures as eight U.S. Park Service police officers looked on.
"What you have here is an open wedge to commercialization of the park," said Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth. "We intend to protest this today to urge people to switch to another cell-phone company and carry on the fight for the park. It's a blatant intrusion, and it's just the first of a series of intrusions."
Bell Atlantic, whose officials could not be reached yesterday, petitioned the National Capital Planning Commission in 1998 for permission to erect two antennas. The company argued that Rock Creek Park's hills and valleys made it one of a few places in the city where its cellular phones didn't work. It said cellular service was needed for the safety of joggers, bikers and motorists in the park. Bell Atlantic will pay a yearly fee of $10,000 to have the towers on federal land, Park Service officials said.
President Clinton and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) were among the more prominent D.C. residents who were not convinced and opposed installing the antennas. They warned that erecting the structures would pave the way for a steel forest of towers as other cellular service providers sought to improve their signals.
District residents and environmentalists also condemned the project, saying the huge antennas would ruin the park's natural beauty and pose a hazard to migratory birds.
Despite community opposition to the controversial project, however, Bell Atlantic had powerful allies in the U.S. Senate. Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who has received campaign donations from the telecommunications giant, and six other lawmakers fired off an angry letter last year to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. They said that "numerous complaints from our colleagues about their inability to use cellular telecommunications in Rock Creek Park . . . are being ignored."
Daschle inserted a provision into the congressionally approved District budget to allow the two towers to be installed in the park. He withdrew the provision but reinserted it in October. The Park Service also weighed in, advising the planning commission that federal law requires government agencies to develop procedures to make federal property available for wireless communication technology.
The planning commission, while initially siding with environmentalists and city residents, voted 8 to 4 in November to permit the towers to be set up in the park. Earlier this month, the company installed a 100-foot antenna near the William Morris Jr. Stadium and tennis courts.
"I think it's pretty outrageous that Bell Atlantic went around city leaders," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). "This is not just a D.C. issue. This is a regional issue. This is another instance of Congress telling D.C. what to do."
Bell Atlantic initially proposed building a tower that resembled a pine tree, with fiberglass limbs. Instead, the structure installed is a naked pole with tentacles sprouting from the top.
"It messes with birds and plants," said Harriet Blair Rowan, 11, a demonstrator. "If Bell Atlantic can do it, everyone else can do it."
CAPTION: Protesters rally against a Bell Atlantic tower in Rock Creek Park. The tower was built by 6 a.m. yesterday despite a scheduled starting time of 10 a.m.