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Telecom tower siting model highlights USET 'Impact Week'

WASHINGTON - A precedent-setting agreement between the Federal Communications Commission and United South and Eastern Tribes led off the list of accomplishments at USET's annual "Impact Week" meetings in Washington Feb. 2 - 5.

The agreement signed by USET and the FCC "spells out the understanding of ? best practices in fulfilling the 106 requirements" of the National Historic Preservation Act, said Tim Martin, USET's executive director. Section 106 requires a review process prior to construction projects that would affect NHPA-protected properties, including properties of Native-specific religious and cultural significance. Tribes nationwide have expressed concerns over the perceived and actual threat of projects that may be initiated on the presumption that NHPA review processes won't be activated. Once initiated, construction may cause damage that is difficult or impossible to undo; once in place, the structures may become a fait accompli that subsequent review is hard-pressed to overthrow.

As so-called wireless communications towers (sometimes called "cell towers" as they often accommodate cellular telephones) increasingly penetrate even remote geographic settings, the potential for intrusive siting has grown. The FCC agreement with USET envisions a series of best practices (finalizing them is still a work in progress) that will help to include tribes in the national movement toward advanced telecommunications while protecting their environmental and historic resources - "including tribal sites of cultural importance," according to an FCC news release.

The release declares the USET memorandum of understanding "the first of its kind for the FCC with Tribes," and offers it as a model for cooperation with all tribes.

On the same day that FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell signed the best practices accord with USET President Keller George, the FCC also announced its new Internet-based Tower Construction Notification System. "Early notification of proposed construction helps avoid situations where towers are constructed before completion of the Section 106 review process, thus ensuring protection of historic properties ?" the FCC stated in a Feb. 3 public notice. "Early notification also enables the Commission to consult on a government-to-government basis with federally-recognized Tribes at an early date."

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Tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations and state historic preservation officers, as well as tower construction entities, can register information and receive construction proposal notices, initiating FCC consultation.

In its public notice and again in the news release, the FCC emphasized that the notification system does not replace Section 106 consultation and is not meant to abet improper identification of tribal traditional cultural properties. Passwords are required, and other protections are in place.

The discovery of lethal ricin in Senate offices during Impact Week somewhat hampered the turnout of congressional speakers, Martin said. Even so, Reps. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and Brad Carson and Tom Cole from Oklahoma (Democratic and Republican members in the House of Representatives, respectively), all turned out from the House Native American Caucus to address the attendees. So did BIA Chief Dave Anderson, Surgeon General Richard Carmona and undersecretaries from federal housing agencies and the Cabinet-level Department of Health and Human Services. Attorney Mark Van Norman also spoke for the National Indian Gaming Association.

At its concluding business meeting, USET adopted a resolution opposing procedural maneuvers around the House bill to tax Internet cigarette sales. H.R. 2824, the Internet Tobacco Sales Enforcement Act, "is being legislated through appropriations rather than through the committee of jurisdiction," Martin said.

The House Resources Committee, chaired by Richard Pombo, R-Calif., traditionally has jurisdiction over Indian-specific bills in the House. Pombo asserted that jurisdiction in 2003, and asked for a referral of 2824 to Resources after it passed the Judiciary Committee. Kildee views the bill as unconstitutional in its provisions for state power over tribal vendors. Speaking to applause before the USET audience, he vowed to rally votes against it in the full House.