To fight a proposed cell tower in rural Thurston County, several neighbors are becoming bird experts.
Verizon Wireless wants to erect a 160-foot tower on Vail Road in the Yelm area near 163rd Lane and in the vicinity of Lawrence Lake, the Deschutes River and a 25-acre wetland.
The tranquil location brims with wildlife. Dozens of waterfowl and bird species thrive in the meadow and wetlands — bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, gadwall ducks and great blue herons.
Nearby residents say the cell tower poses a threat to the environment, and in May 2016, a Thurston County hearing examiner agreed. In sending the proposal back to the county for further review, the hearing examiner reported that “the proposal conflicts with the wireless communications facilities siting standards” and that “environmental factors were not adequately considered.”
But as resident Rella Schafer put it, “We haven’t won yet.”
Schafer, who lives on 163rd Lane, regularly observes birds in the 25-acre wetland that abuts her property. The natural beauty was part of the reason she and her husband moved there 11 years ago.
The cell tower’s threat to the ecosystem cannot be understated, she said. Verizon simply needs to find a more suitable location for the tower, she contends.
“We’ve just got to start looking out for the wildlife on the planet. That’s the bottom line,” Schafer said. “We have to stand up and say ‘No, that’s enough.’ ”
A wildlife biologist representing Verizon had reported that a cell tower would not affect any species in the area and also told the hearing examiner last year that there isn’t any research showing the tower would create a risk for bird collisions, according to documents.
The residents disagreed and reached out to the Black Hills Audubon Society for help proving their case. Society members began giving presentations to educate residents about the area’s bird species.
Since the beginning of the year, several residents have voluntarily spent six hours every Thursday — three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon — surveying the area in three spots to identify all the species and their migratory patterns.
“It’s such a habitat-rich area,” said Sue Danver, one of many society members to assist with the effort. “This is citizen science.”
The neighbors have other professionals on their side, including Alex Foster, a research ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who moved to the area in 2005. Foster told the hearing examiner that he has observed at least 36 bird and mammal species.
Alison Styring, a wildlife biologist and ornithologist who teaches at The Evergreen State College, reported observing 13 bird species, including six waterfowl species, during a February 2016 site visit, according to documents. Styring also reported that “it would be better for bird survival” to erect the tower outside of the critical habitat near Lawrence Lake to avoid disrupting birds’ migratory patterns.
Testimony from federal wildlife biologist Albert Manville also was submitted to the hearing examiner and reiterated federal guidelines for cell towers: “Towers should not be sited in or near wetlands (and) other known bird concentration areas” and that “disturbance can result in effects to bird populations which may cumulatively affect their survival.”