How Fake Trees Took Over America

December 2, 2019

Cell towers disguised as trees are sprouting up all across America. And for the most part, they stand out like well, a cell tower. And with concealment costs at an average of over $100,000 per tower it begs the question...WHY?!


Female 1: [NOISE] [MUSIC] In 1992,

Female 1: Sprint wanted to build a cell phone tower in

Female 1: the small scenic town of Monument, Colorado.

Female 1: But the public was concerned [NOISE] that

Female 1: the tower would obscure their mountain views.

Female 1: So Sprint hired Larson Camouflage,

Female 1: a company known for creating

Female 1: artificial natural environments for Disney parks,

Female 1: zoos, and museum exhibits.

Female 1: Their solution was the mono pine.

Female 1: [MUSIC].

Female 1: Larson Camouflage has gone on to conceal

Female 1: thousands [MUSIC] of cell towers

Female 1: since using the mono palm,

Female 1: mono elm, cypresses, and cactuses.

Female 1: Across the United States,

Female 1: cell towers have been concealed in flagpoles,

Female 1: street lamps, water towers,

Female 1: art installations, and even church steeples.

Female 1: But these disguises aren't

Female 1: really fooling anyone, are they?

Female 1: They're also pretty expensive,

Female 1: [NOISE] adding up to a

Female 1: $100,000 extra to the cost of building a cell tower.

Female 1: We see so many of

Female 1: these fake cell tower trees thanks in part

Female 1: to efforts to combat

Female 1: visual pollution, things like billboards,

Female 1: crowded highway signage, antennas, and wires,

Female 1: but is visual pollution really pollution

Female 1: or just a fancy name for an eyesore?

Female 1: In 2009, Notre Dame law professor John Copeland Nagle

Female 1: learned of a potential new cell phone tower

Female 1: proposed for his town.

Female 1: [BACKGROUND] Nagle went on to write a paper

Female 1: about whether pollution

Female 1: is the right framework for

Female 1: thinking about cell phone towers.

Female 1: Former US first lady Lady Bird Johnson

Female 1: was a strong proponent for the beautification of America.

Female 1: [NOISE] She believed that

Female 1: billboards, ugly buildings, signs,

Female 1: and telephone poles negatively affected

Female 1: people's mental health and

Female 1: contributed to higher crime rates.

Female 1: So, her husband got to work.

Female 1: [NOISE] "You know I love

Female 1: that woman and she wants that Highway Beautification Act,

Female 1: and by God, we're gonna get it

Female 1: for her," President Johnson said.

Female 1: The bill, the Highway Beautification Act, was passed.

Female 1: [NOISE] It prohibited certain types of

Female 1: advertising along federally

Female 1: funded highways and interstates.

Female 1: And ever since then, committees, courts,

Female 1: and academics have rallied around

Female 1: the term visual pollution to

Female 1: declare their opposition to

Female 1: man-made additions to the landscape.

Female 1: [MUSIC] As Nagle points out,

Female 1: cell towers are a new version of an old problem.

Female 1: In the early 1900s,

Female 1: people made aesthetic complaints about electric wires,

Female 1: telephone wires,

Female 1: and trolley cables as communities modernized.

Female 1: When neighbors took those complaints to court,

Female 1: courts often favored

Female 1: the power company or the phone company.

Female 1: As utilities, they had

Female 1: a legal right of way [NOISE] called eminent domain.

Female 1: The big question in all these cases was,

Female 1: is the aesthetic harm caused by

Female 1: a telephone pole something that deserves compensation?

Female 1: Once underground wires became available,

Female 1: cities and courts started requiring utilities to use

Female 1: those less objectionable looking underground wires

Female 1: instead of the above ground ones strung up on poles.

FEMALE_1: [MUSIC] With the rise of mobile phones in the 1980s

FEMALE_1: came the rise of cell towers and resident complaints.

FEMALE_1: Cell providers don't have

FEMALE_1: eminent domain so they have to persuade

FEMALE_1: and sometimes pay private landowners

FEMALE_1: to allow a tower on their property.

FEMALE_1: The property owner gets paid,

FEMALE_1: but the neighbors still have

FEMALE_1: to deal with the visual pollution.

FEMALE_1: In turn, they end up

FEMALE_1: lodging complaints with local governments.

FEMALE_1: Local governments got really

FEMALE_1: adept at using zoning and other types

FEMALE_1: of regulations to block

FEMALE_1: cell phone towers from being built.

FEMALE_1: That might have solved local aesthetic problems,

FEMALE_1: but it created a new national problem.

FEMALE_1: Too many restrictive local requirements would hinder

FEMALE_1: the development of a national

FEMALE_1: wireless communications network.

FEMALE_1: So congress stepped in with a compromise,

FEMALE_1: the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

FEMALE_1: The TCA made it more difficult for local governments to

FEMALE_1: block cell towers based on aesthetic concerns alone.

FEMALE_1: The TCA requires the local government to provide

FEMALE_1: substantial evidence that the cell phone tower

FEMALE_1: would cause a aesthetic harm to the community.

FEMALE_1: Remember our friend Professor Nagel?

FEMALE_1: In his paper, he asks,

FEMALE_1: "How does a local government show that there is

FEMALE_1: substantial evidence that a proposed cell tower

FEMALE_1: will result in an aesthetic harm?"

FEMALE_1: Well, he says you could compile a stack of

FEMALE_1: resident complaints that the cell tower

FEMALE_1: is ruining their view,

FEMALE_1: but those are in the words of one court,

FEMALE_1: "No more than individualized aesthetic opinions,

FEMALE_1: not based on any fixed

FEMALE_1: standards" To really build your case,

FEMALE_1: perhaps you could present some of the studies

FEMALE_1: linking urban environments to psychological distress.

FEMALE_1: There is evidence that

FEMALE_1: our physical environment affects our mental health.

FEMALE_1: It's also been shown at communing with

FEMALE_1: nature is good for our mental health.

FEMALE_1: But there is no conclusive study that specifically links

FEMALE_1: the appearance of cell phone towers

FEMALE_1: with negative mental health outcomes.

FEMALE_1: So that might be a bit of a stretch,

FEMALE_1: and Nagel's question still stands,

FEMALE_1: "How does one prove objectively

FEMALE_1: that the tower is causing real aesthetic harm?"

FEMALE_1: The answer might lie in the way

FEMALE_1: we handle other types of pollution.

FEMALE_1: As Nagel points out,

FEMALE_1: no environment is entirely free from pollution.

FEMALE_1: Government agencies decide how much pollution

FEMALE_1: is acceptable in the air,

FEMALE_1: in our food, in the water.

FEMALE_1: Cell towers provide a service that

FEMALE_1: we all rely on and enjoy using.

FEMALE_1: Nagel suggests that this arguably outweighs

FEMALE_1: the minor aesthetic harm cell towers might cause.

FEMALE_1: Nagel also points out that as we

FEMALE_1: become used to things, they stand out less.

FEMALE_1: [NOISE] Perhaps the longer cell phone towers are around,

FEMALE_1: the less we'll notice them.

FEMALE_1: Barbed-wire, electric wires, and telephone poles

FEMALE_1: all used to generate aesthetic complaints,

FEMALE_1: and then we got used to them.

FEMALE_1: Or in the case of phone lines,

FEMALE_1: when a better solution came along, underground wiring,

FEMALE_1: towns started requiring utilities

FEMALE_1: to opt for in-ground wires,

FEMALE_1: so new technology could make towers

FEMALE_1: obsolete and the whole argument

FEMALE_1: might become a moot point.

Matt Leblanc: This is all a moot point.

Matt Leblanc: [LAUGHTER]

FEMALE_1: Well, the argument about

FEMALE_1: cell phone towers will become moot,

FEMALE_1: but the next visual pollution claims

FEMALE_1: are already on the horizon.

FEMALE_1: Wind farm proposals are now generating all kinds

FEMALE_1: of complaints that their ruining views. Here we go again.