The Free-Standing Mount Washburn Cell Tower

 Summit circa 1911 
 Mount Washburn Lookout in 1930

When U.S. Army General William Tecumseh Sherman climbed to the summit of pristine Mt. Washburn in 1877, he wrote: 

“Any man standing on Mt. Washburn feels as though the whole world were below him.  The view is simply sublime…” 

Today’s hikers would surely agree about the view, but there is one dramatic change to the summit itself:  the massive industrial-age structure there.  It was once a simple fire lookout built in 1939; since 1980 it has become an ever-growing eyesore transforming scenic Mt. Washburn into Yellowstone’s primary telecommunications hub.

Since 1916 when Congress created the National Park Service (NPS), Yellowstone officials have been required to “conserve the scenery” of the Park and manage it “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”  The Park Service’s treatment of Mt. Washburn serves as a prominent exception to this nearly century-old mandate. 

While the steady desecration of Mt. Washburn has spanned decades, in just the past ten years Yellowstone has done the following:

  • Drafted another proposal in 2012 (hardly an improvement on the 2008 proposal), only to discover that the Park Service did not have the money to build it; and
  • Approved the concept of Verizon building the proposed cell tower and then conveying it to the Park Service, only to have NPS lawyers reject such an arrangement because it would have allowed the company to continue to collect a “Late Comers Fee” from co-locators after the tower was conveyed to NPS.

When will the public have a chance to weigh in on tower proposals for Mt. Washburn?  In June 2014, Superintendent Wenk informed PEER that “any final design for a new structure would be available to the public prior to any substantial changes being implemented.” 

While this opportunity is welcome, it is somewhat belated.  National Historic Preservation Act Section 106 regulations (800.1) provide for consultation with interested parties “commencing at the early stages of project planning.” Making the “final design” for a new structure available to the public, with apparently no chance to comment, falls far short of the legal requirement for early consultation and public participation.

Look at what the past ten years have brought to the no longer “sublime” Mt. Washburn.