Ten-Year Chronology of Park Service Actions at Mt. Washburn

June 2004:  OSHA warns Yellowstone officials that the Mt. Washburn fire lookout tower, with its numerous antennas, microwave dishes, and electronics equipment, emits radio frequency radiation in excess of federal safety standards in three places.

March 2005:  Yellowstone’s safety officer, Brandon Gauthier, cautions Park officials that “we are pushing the edge of safety up on Mt. Washburn.” 

September 2006:  The National Park Service issues new system-wide Management Policies.  Here is the specific language dealing with cell towers:

“New traditional towers (i.e., monopole or lattice) should be approved only after all other options have been explored.”

It’s now simple for NPS managers:  only if no other option is possible can a traditional cell tower be approved.  This provision relegates traditional towers in national parks to the “last resort” category. 

September 2008:  Yellowstone publishes its “Wireless Communications Services Plan/EA,” acknowledging  that the “Mount Washburn Fire Lookout, where there is a considerable collection of antennas close to areas of visitor access, poses a risk of radio frequency exposure.”  The plan proposes the following solution (p. 28):

“A new antenna mounting structure would be constructed at the summit of Mt. Washburn to relocate existing antennas and microwave dishes from the fire lookout structure (Fig. 8).  This would address current safety concerns and viewshed impacts from the historic lookout.”

October 2008:  The Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office (WY SHPO) comments on the Wireless Plan’s proposal for Mt. Washburn, stating that “While it is not ideal to have communication equipment on the historic building, the view from and of the building and peak are also important to consider when planning for change at this site.”  WY SHPO concludes:  “The mock-up [Fig. 8] of the proposed relocation of equipment at Mt. Washburn Lookout points out the challenges of this site and we cannot concur on the effect of that project without a more specific plan to review.”

December 2008:  Following consultation by phone with Yellowstone officials, the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office again focuses its attention on the Wireless Plan’s “photo simulation” (Fig. 8) of the proposed new tower at Mt. Washburn, writing that “a standard lattice or monopole structure would introduce a non-compatible element in the viewsheds and vicinity of the historic district.”

Early 2009:  The public reaction to the “photo simulation” of a Mt. Washburn cell tower is decidedly negative. Here are some of the comments from the public:

“A multi-storied antenna platform on Mt. Washburn will do nothing but detract from the reason MOST visitors come to Yellowstone: wide open spaces, beautiful vistas and the opportunity to ‘get away’ from it all.”

“The proposed ‘antenna platform’ on Mt. Washburn is unacceptable.  As designed, the proposed multi-story platform makes the area look worse, and Yellowstone must do better to reduce the visual impacts.”

“There must be a better, less obtrusive alternative to the very large and obtrusive ‘antenna platform’ depicted in the photo simulation on p. 28 of the DEA.”

April 2009:  Yellowstone officials issue a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI) for the Wireless Plan/EA, but back off their proposed new cell tower at Mt. Washburn (as illustrated on p. 28).  They promise to “consider other possibilities to minimize or reduce visual intrusions for visitors and to address safety concerns regarding the electro-magnetic waves.”  

November 2011:  Park officials come up with a new “preferred design” for a new cell tower at Mt. Washburn.  It’s known as “Conceptual Design #6” and proposes “relocating all the antennae on an ‘H’ frame structure.

February 2012:  Yellowstone officials contact the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office (WY SHPO) seeking concurrence with their proposal for a new cell tower at Mt. Washburn.  After “further discussion” with Yellowstone staff, WY SHPO concurs, even though the new design is of the “lattice” variety.

Note that in a December 2008 letter to Yellowstone officials, WY SHPO had expressed the contrary opinion that “a standard lattice or monopole structure would introduce a non-compatible element in the viewsheds and vicinity of the historic district.” 

October 2012:  In an e-mail to Verizon, Yellowstone’s top telecom official acknowledges that NPS does not have the money to build the newly-designed free-standing cell tower at Mt. Washburn:  “It appears that the funding resource for construction of an NPS tower at Mount Washburn has disappeared on us for the foreseeable future.”

Verizon then enthusiastically offers to build the cell tower for the Park:  “We will be happy to spearhead the construction assuming we can recoup some of our costs with collocators [sic] in the future.” [ 

May 2013:  Verizon proposes language for a possible agreement with NPS to build a free-standing cell tower at Mt. Washburn.  It includes a provision dealing with future co-locators such that each one would pay Verizon a “Late Comers Fee” even after the tower has been conveyed to NPS.  

July 2013:  NPS lawyers reject the Verizon language, stating that “a handover to NPS while Verizon still collects a late comers fee, is too complicated legally.” 

July 23, 2013:  Bret DeYoung, Yellowstone’s Telecommunications Branch Chief, e-mails in response to a complaint about the lack of coverage at Canyon Village (near Mt. Washburn) that “Verizon’s FCC license does not permit them to cover the south side of Washburn.  I continue to pester the Verizon Engineers in Denver to obtain a license where it matters, but they do not respond.  AT&T covers the Canyon area with GSM service.”  

October 8, 2013:  Larry Gatz of Verizon e-mails Bret DeYoung enclosing before and after coverage maps for the Mt. Washburn and Canyon areas.  The maps indicate that new antennas atop Mt. Washburn will cover significant chunks of the backcountry, including a large portion of the Hayden Valley south of Canyon and the winding road from Canyon to Tower. 

October 24, 2013YNP’s Bret DeYoung apologetically asks Verizon for “slightly more downtilt” on the antennas because “[i]f it is possible we would like to minimize spillover to the road corridors south and east of the Canyon developed area.”

October 29, 2013Letter from Sup. Wenk to WY SHPO describes the proposal as follows:  “In sum, two existing pole-type antennas on the building would be replaced with three new panel antennas.”  Wenk notes that the fire tower lookout is “eligible for listing on the National Register…” That is, of course, one reason why the Park is seeking WY SHPO’s concurrence

November 6, 2013:  Verizon’s Gatz e-mails Bret DeYoung that he has gone “ahead and added more downtilt to the southwest sector, which pulled the coverage back from the road a little bit.  There isn’t much we can do about that unless we sacrifice coverage to the Canyons [sic] area.”This indicates that the antennas have already been put in place, even before concurrence from WY SHPO.

November 18, 2013: WY SHPO concurrence letter to Sup. Wenk, approving the Mt. Washburn antenna swap.

January 2014: Although the configuration of what will ultimately be built has yet to be determined, Yellowstone officials approve Verizon’s September 2013 application to provide “new Wireless Service” at Mt. Washburn and “Replace two omni antennas with up to three 6’ panel antennas to continue to provide coverage to the north, and south.” The short proposal specifies inclusion of “EME [electromagnetic energy] shields” and that “EME will be directed away from the fire watch residence.” Assistant Superintendent Iobst (for Wenk) signs on Jan. 14, 2014

February 2014According to the Wireless Committee meeting minutes, “work will be scheduled [for the Verizon Wireless antenna replacement]... when FCC approvals are complete.”

April 2014:  According to the Wireless Committee meeting minutes, Verizon "intends to complete the antenna upgrades on Mount Washburn as soon as they can drive to the site."

June 27, 2014:  Disappointment follows the “upgrade.”  One ranger at Canyon writes in an e-mail to Bret DeYoung, Yellowstone's Chief of Telecommunications:  “Voice seems to have improved.  Data much worse than before switchover.” July 3, 2014:  Another NPS ranger writes to DeYoung:  "Bret, so is this as good as the service is going to get?"

July 8, 2014:  Yellowstone's DeYoung writes to Verizon:  “Reports from the District Rangers at Tower and Canyon and my own personal observations indicate little improvement in Verizon coverage at Canyon Village and a reduction in service at the Tower/Roosevelt area... Would additional downtilt on some or all of the sectors improve service in the Tower and Canyon developed areas?  Yellowstone's intent described in the Wireless Communications Plan EA was  not to cover roadways and backcountry.  Covering developed areas is the intent of the Plan and is where the greatest concentration of customers access the site.”

July 22, 2014:  According to the Wireless Committee meeting minutes, “Verizon completed their sectorization work at the end of June.  Two trends were noticeable on the post sector analysis.  The Z sector facing Canyon Village now does more traffic post SMR than the Omni did prior due to better signal coverage at Canyon.  Unfortunately Z is now blocking pretty heavily resulting in denial of (call) service and slow or nonexistent data download and texting capabilities during high visitation.  CenturyLink is out of spans so adding additional carriers is not possible.”