Yellowstone Cell History

September 1994:  Cellular One approaches Yellowstone officials “concerning the possibility of providing cellular service in the park.”  The plan is to attach cellular antennas to existing structures.

August 1995:  Cellular One submits a 33-page proposal to provide cellular
service “throughout the Park.” Yellowstone grants permission to Cellular One to install a “cell site saver” on Mount Washburn. 

April 1996:  Yellowstone’s Assistant Superintendent Marv Jensen sends a memo to the Park’s Division Chiefs asking them how many free phones they want.  Jensen writes:

“… [W]e are negotiating with [Cellular One] to provide the NPS with a certain number of free phones and a guarantee of a certain number of free minutes of phone time for general operations… We anticipate in the neighborhood of 30 to 40 phones for park staff.” 

May 10, 1996:  Three months after Congress passes the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the National Park Service issues “Procedures to Permit the Siting of Mobile Services Antennas on National Park Service (NPS) Property.”

Paragraph 2:  “A right-of-way permit will be the only permitting document used to authorize telecommunications antenna sites on Service lands.”

Paragraph 4:  “National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] compliance and cultural compliance [National Historic Preservation Act, Section 106] is required for each project.”

Paragraph 11:  “The permittee will take stringent steps to minimize or prevent visual impact.” 

May 20, 1996:  Despite the NPS directive that only rights-of-way are appropriate for cellular sites, Yellowstone officials issue a “Special Use Permit.”  The Special Use Permit allows for cellular antennas to be placed on existing structures at Old Faithful, Grant Village, Mt. Washburn, Bunsen Peak, and other sites to be determined.  Under the heading “Other Compensation,” Yellowstone officials receive 70 free cell phones and 5,000 minutes of free use per month, plus unlimited use during emergencies.   

June 1996:  A month after issuing the Special Use Permit, the Park realizes that it has failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).  To comply with NEPA, Assistant Superintendent Jensen decides that a “categorical exclusion” is appropriate, which means that no NEPA analysis will be conducted at all.  There is to be no analysis of the impacts of cell phone use on “Visitor Use and Experience,” or on “Soundscapes,” or any other topic that NEPA analysis must cover.  As for compliance with the NHPA (Section 106), the Park simply states that “there are no… Section 106 concerns” with its action.

Assistant Superintendent Jensen acknowledges that Yellowstone messed up by issuing a Special Use Permit.  In a memo, he writes:    

“At the time of issuance the park was not aware that only a Right-of-Way Permit was to be issued.” 

He commits the Park to converting the Special Use Permit into a Right-of-Way.  That promised conversion never takes place, and the Special Use Permit remains valid for its entire five-year term. 

1998-2001:  In 1998, cellular companies begin seeking approval for free-standing cell towers in the Park.  (Up until then, cellular antennas had been placed on existing park structures.)  From 1998-2001, free-standing cell towers are approved for Old Faithful, Grant Village, Elk Plaza (Mammoth Hot Springs), and Bunsen Peak (near Mammoth

In September 2004, PEER caught Yellowstone officials misusing the money collected from cell tower leases in the Park. The Park is required by law to deposit all lease money in the U.S. Treasury (as miscellaneous receipts), but instead Yellowstone used the money to pay its telecom staff.  When caught, Yellowstone officials tell the Los Angeles Times that they were “unaware of the mandate.”  (September 14, 2004 issue:  “Mixed Signals: Some foresee a forest of cellphone towers encroaching on parklands.”)

On March 31, 2005, Yellowstone officials meet behind closed doors with representatives from Sprint, Verizon, Qwest, Western Wireless (now Alltel) and concessionaires. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the development of a “Wireless Telecommunications Plan” for the park.  The companies urged siting more cell phone towers, installing broadband wireless internet service and microwave transmitters. Meeting notes by one park official state that “up to 10 entities could provide service in the park.” 

By August 2006, 188 NPS employees at Yellowstone have government-issued cell phones, and they are no longer free to buy or use.  The total cell phone bill for the Park in 2006 was more than $93,000. 

Incidentally, NPS policy requires each park to justify, in a “Cellular Telephone Request Form,” the necessity for each phone issued.  Not surprisingly, Yellowstone officials have chosen to ignore this directive, too.  In 2007, PEER requests copies of all “Cell Phone Request Forms” that Yellowstone has filled out, but the Park is unable to produce a single completed form. 

In 2008-09, the Park’s Wireless Plan approves two additional free-standing towers:  one for the Lake area, and another at the top of Mt. Washburn.