Washington, DC — This week, Yellowstone National Park is conducting a series of “open houses” prior to unveiling a park-wide cell phone and wireless internet plan. While withholding details, the park has signaled that it will propose increased cell and internet access throughout the park, according to public comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
More than two years ago, following public controversies over the decision by park officials to site a cell phone tower overlooking Old Faithful, Yellowstone announced a moratorium on any additional cell phone towers until it completed its “Wireless Communications Plan.” Yellowstone already has five cell phone towers, covering two-thirds of the park, including much of the park’s vast, wild backcountry.
Although park managers have been meeting behind closed doors with representatives from several telecommunications companies to map out plans, this is the first time that the park has invited public participation of any sort relative to its communications plans. The open houses start today in Idaho Falls, continue tomorrow in Bozeman and end next week in Cody. Public comments will be accepted until August 31.
“Yellowstone’s wireless plan has been in development longer than it has taken to draft and ratify the new Iraqi constitution – and we still have yet to see what the plan is,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is urging the park to remove cell coverage from the backcountry. “There ought to be some place in Yellowstone people can go that is free from the electronic tethers of civilization.”
One indication of the park’s approach was provided in the letter from Superintendent Suzanne Lewis announcing the open houses:
“The challenge Yellowstone National Park faces is how to respond appropriately to visitor expectations and how to weigh the benefits and impacts of wireless technologies…while protecting the historic, rustic, outdoor experience of a visit to the world’s first national park.”
“Superintendent Lewis misreads her job description – she is supposed to, above all, be protecting park resources, including peace and quiet, not trading off those resources for some preconceived notion of what visitors want,” added Ruch. “Twenty years ago when smoking cigarettes in public places was widely tolerated, Yellowstone banned smoking in the thermal basins to prevent resource damage, thereby determining what visitor expectations should be rather than letting those expectations dictate park policy.”
In addition to cell phones, the park is evaluating wireless internet service (WiFi) in its lodges and restaurants, as well as expanded web-cams, data transmission and radio signals. When the park unveils its plan, there will be another public comment period as part of a formal environmental assessment. That assessment may lead to further studies or a finding that that the plan has no significant impacts and may be adopted without further review.