Telecoms in Drivers Seat as Cell Towers Sprout Across National Park Landscapes

Washington, DC, Sept. 9, 2019 — National parks are getting wired, despite rising concerns about impacts on scenery, soundscapes, and serenity, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  The cellular footprint inside the national park system is spreading, with whole networks of cell towers springing up in some of America’s grandest parks, including both Grand Teton (with nine new towers) and Grand Canyon (with five towers slated for approval), as well as emerging proposals from Olympic, Crater Lake, Lake Mead, and Bryce Canyon.

Just days after an Inspector General report found widespread malfeasance in park management of commercial cellular facilities, citing failure to comply with environmental laws, collect the proper revenue, and involve the public in required planning processes, the National Park Service (NPS) is greenlighting even more cell towers. Now, instead of approving one tower at a time, parks are okaying entire networks in one fell swoop.  Significantly, these actions –

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  • Authorize significant spillover of cell signals into park wilderness and backcountry, deeply penetrating cathedrals of nature with human noise;
  • Make no effort to lessen scenic impact of multiple large metal mono-poles; and
  • Spring from official findings of “No Significant Impact” despite substantial concerns raised.

“Superintendents cite visitor expectation of cellular connectivity as the reason for installing these towers on national park land, as if they work for Verizon, not the Park Service,” stated Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Mount Washburn, Yellowstone’s most popular hiking destination, was closed to visitors to accommodate more telecom infrastructure.  “Can we expect cell towers atop Mount Rushmore or El Capitan next?”

Currently, NPS does not know how many cell towers have already been installed or how many are in the pipeline. The agency told the Inspector General it would complete an inventory by the end of 2020, but in the meantime is plowing ahead with more facilities. PEER today sent a letter to the acting NPS director calling for a moratorium on new approvals until it completes its inventory and assesses the systemic violations of resource protection laws and policies.

“The Park Service needs to pump the brakes on cellular expansion until it gets a handle on what it has, where it is going, and why,” argued Ruch, pointing out that NPS lacks a confirmed director or even a nominee under Trump. “The myopic and lawless nature of these cell approvals illustrates a leaderless National Park Service that has lost sight of its institutional values.”

Ironically, although these recent approvals tout modernization, none accommodate 5G (Fifth Generation) cell service and will soon be obsolete.

“Before the ink is dry on these new rights-of-way, the telecoms will be pushing for upgrades,” Ruch added. “Cell service in parks is like a gateway drug that is hard to kick and leads to evermore electronic entanglement.”

Revisit critical Inspector General report

Look at concerns with Grand Teton cell expansion

See Grand Teton’s recent approval

View new Grand Canyon plan

Read the PEER cell moratorium letter