Washington, DC — Even as Yellowstone National Park officials finalize a plan to chart the future for cell towers in the nation’s most famous park, more and more park employees are being given government-paid cell phones, according to internal documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Yellowstone’s growing reliance on official cell phones appears to ignore National Park Service policy limiting issuance of phones only when absolutely necessary.
Park records obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act indicate employees were issued 70 cell phones in 2004 but by August 2006 that number had grown to 188 employee cell phones. As of November 14, 2007, the park counts 155 employee phones but this number reflects off-season usage and may grow again this spring.
In 2005, Yellowstone spent $92,000 in cell phone charges and nearly $94,000 in 2006. Thus far in 2007, the park has spent $63,000. Prior to 2005, the park was illegally receiving free phones and minutes while improperly depositing lease fees in its own accounts rather than the U.S. Treasury as required.
“How can Yellowstone objectively develop a wireless plan when almost half of its staff has been made cell phone dependent?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that more than 40% of the park’s 380 full-time permanent employees have government-paid cell phones. “During this entire debate, the park has never set forth its own perceived cellular needs and expectations, even though these factors are clearly relevant to their decision-making.”
National Park Service policy limits issuance of cell phones to when it “is necessary for the employees to perform Service work.” Additionally, the need must be documented and validated in official forms.
Yellowstone Park lacks any written plan or protocol to determine which of its employees receives a government cell phone. In response to the PEER Freedom of Information Act request, the park could not produce any document spelling out who gets phones or why the number has changed, writing in its transmittal letter, “We have completed a thorough search of our records and have enclosed all documents responsive to your request.”
The future of Yellowstone’s five cell towers, including one clearly visible from much of the Old Faithful Historical District, will be determined by the plan due out in early 2008. PEER believes that a new, stricter policy with respect to cell towers and cell phone use is warranted, and recently praised park officials for raising concerns about the potential impacts of a proposed 150-foot cell tower just outside the park’s northern boundary in Gardiner, Montana.
“Yellowstone officials can hardly expect park visitors to shut out the ceaseless chatter of the modern world when it keeps passing out free phones to its own employees,” Ruch added. “Will any corner of Yellowstone remain outside the electronic blanket of cellular coverage?”