Washington, DC, July 12, 2018 — One of Yellowstone National Park’s most popular hiking destinations today closed for the summer so that Verizon can multiply its capacity in the park “38 times,” according to an internal email posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The project would also add two more towers in the park’s Canyon and Lake areas, part of a growing web of commercial wireless facilities extending coverage across America’s first park, including much of its remote backcountry.
Yellowstone has the largest maintenance backlog of any park in the nation, approximately two-thirds of a billion dollars at last count. Despite its aging sewage system and other pressing needs, accommodating commercial telecom carriers apparently has first call on the park’s priority list.
In one of Superintendent Dan Wenk’s last acts last week, he signed off on a “Categorical Exclusion” certifying that the project “would cause no or only minimal environmental impact.” Mt. Washburn is one of Yellowstone’s most popular hiking destinations because of the stunning panoramic views it offers. And precisely because of this commanding vantage, telecom companies covet its historic fire lookout as the place to deploy their facilities to maximize signal coverage.
Thus, over time, the park has allowed Mt. Washburn to be transformed into a massive, unsightly and dangerous telecommunications bunker. Today, it hosts more than 35 antennas and microwave dishes. That is more than the aging historic lookout can safely support, but there is commercial demand for even more:
- Yellowstone plans to build a metal wall sheathing three sides of the lookout with plans to substantially increase the number of wireless accoutrements mounted there;
- This expansion will “multiply current Verizon capacity 38 times,” according to a key park official, but service to the park’s own “network is not expected to improve in the short term”; and
- This cellular explosion further marginalizes national park policies to protect natural soundscapes, pristine vistas and serenity values.
“Hiking and communing with nature have become secondary at Yellowstone to sending selfies, receiving texts, and playing online games,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the park has no idea of how many wireless facilities will ultimately be added and where coverage will reach. “The park’s telecommunications planning has been completely captured by Verizon, CenturyLink, and AT&T.”
A decade ago, Yellowstone unveiled its Wireless Plan, stating that “The plan restricts towers, antennas, and wireless services to a few limited locations in the park, in order to protect park resources and limit the impact on park visitors.” Yet without revising the plan, the park has done a philosophical about-face to now “increase the availability of cellular telecommunications bandwidth that currently limits park operations, visitor safety, and visitor experience,” in the words of the Categorical Exclusion.
“Yellowstone seems to have misplaced its mission to accommodate perceived customer demand,” added Ruch, noting that none of the restrictions Yellowstone promised back in 2008, such as “cellphone-free” zones, outreach projects to educate visitors on courteous cellphone use, and pledges to limit signals to “developed areas” have yet to be implemented. “Reconfiguring the monstrosity at Mt. Washburn should not be done without examining how and why we got to this point and whether there is a path back.”