Celling out 

A decade has passed since a privately owned cell phone tower appeared without public comment on a highly visible perch above the Old Faithful Geyser, but Yellowstone National Park is just now asking for public input on the placement of wireless communication facilities within its borders.

The long-anticipated “Wireless Communications Service Plan” environmental assessment (EA) seeks to address not just the Old Faithful tower, which is owned by Alltel, but all wireless communication within the park. This includes cell towers, wi-fi services and webcams in high use areas. The plan also addresses backcountry webcams, as long as they’re used for “resource monitoring” or could help with unspecified visitor “safety concerns.”

But while many watchdogs have clamored for years to get the park to consider the appropriateness of any privately owned electronic conveniences, Public Employees for Enviro-nmental Responsibil-ity (PEER) claims this plan “opens the door to any wireless structures or applications not explicitly prohibited by law.”

“This is the park service allowing commercial exploitation of public spaces, because these are privately operated cell towers and not government facilities,” says Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director. “They’re just trying to put a bow on it with this EA.”

Released on Sept. 17, the plan outlines four alternatives for public comment, but prefers a “Limited Increase.”

This alternative would “protect park resources and values by limiting the types and locations of wireless services and infrastructure,” but governs only future placements, largely dismissing concerns about existing structures. The sole exception—the 80-foot antenna at Old Faithful—is slated for relocation so that “visibility of the tower could be reduced from 78% to 59% within the area that most visitors frequent.”

But the rest of the “Limited Increase” alternative is about new development, bringing coverage to the park’s only remaining cell-free “heavy-use area.” This doesn’t sit well with Ruch.

“Yellowstone aspires to be an amusement park, whereas communing with nature requires a [wi-fi] dead zone,” says Ruch. With commercial uses such as bioprospecting and snowmobiling “running roughshod in the park…visitor expectations trump resource protection,” he says.

Comments on the plan can be submitted at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/yell before Oct. 31.
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