Washington, DC — Commercial cell towers located inside Yellowstone National Park now send signals to much of its wild backcountry, according to maps and records posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This extensive cellular footprint contradicts official assurances that signal spillover outside developed areas would be kept “to a minimum” and coverage would not reach “the vast majority of Yellowstone.”
At the summit of Mount Washburn, with its panoramic views, Yellowstone has transformed the historic fire lookout into an industrial telecommunications hub, studded with 36 antennae. PEER recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the coverage map for AT&T’s latest installation there. Park officials denied PEER’s request on grounds that the map was a “trade secret,” but agency lawyers overruled Yellowstone and ordered the map released. It shows, contrary to prior claims of minimal cell coverage, that a substantial portion of the Park receives signals from just this one location.
But Yellowstone officials have issued permits for four other cell towers circling the heart of the Park. When the coverage of all five towers is combined, there remains little of Yellowstone not connected. Even more coverage inside the Park comes from towers just outside of its boundaries, including those at West Yellowstone and Gardiner in Montana (near its west and north entrances, respectively) and on the Rockefeller Parkway in Wyoming (near its south entrance).
“The electronic tendrils of civilization now penetrate the deepest reaches of America’s wildest places,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that there is no longer need to ask “Can you hear me now?” about Yellowstone. “The Park has taken no step to limit backcountry coverage. To the contrary, Yellowstone officials dissembled to mask these effects in discounting our repeated warnings.”
Yellowstone also appears to be violating National Park Service policy requiring coverage maps “showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ service levels and signal strength for” every cell tower proposal (per NPS Reference Manual 53). The Park not only ignored this requirement but tried to hide the coverage maps it possessed. It has yet to produce maps for three of its five towers.
At the same time, Yellowstone now finds its existing commercial cellular infrastructure unable to support movie downloads, multi-player games and the high-speed access – 4G LTE (Fourth Generation Long-Term Evolution) – promoted by cell companies. In response, the Park is scrambling to accommodate bigger bandwidths to meet perceived consumer demand.
“Yellowstone has sold its soul to the telecom companies. Unfortunately, it is not alone,” Ruch added, pointing to plans in Theodore Roosevelt National Park to put a 4G cell tower on the edge of the biggest stretch of designated wilderness in North Dakota. “The Park Service is shirking its duty to shield nature’s cathedrals from electronic pollution. In fact, it is facilitating that intrusion.”