Flickr/Kevin Vance

Do Wi-Fi and Cell Service Belong in Our National Parks?

Yellowstone National Park wants to go 4G, and some environmentalists aren’t happy.

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Jun 23 2017, 1:00pm

Flickr/Kevin Vance

On a road trip through Yosemite National Park, I once stopped at a particularly beautiful waterfall. Two dozen onlookers were already there; most Vine-ing, 'gramming, tweeting, or texting shots of the vista. Mildly distracted, I filmed some videos, and left. To this day, that remains my most vivid memory of California's most iconic national park.

Plenty of people experience nature through a lens. So it's no surprise that Yellowstone National Park wants to enhance cellular and Wi-Fi coverage throughout some of its 2.2 million acres. It would require serious infrastructure changes, including two new cellular towers at scenic points, and a bulky antennae platform on historic Mount Washburn.

Mount Washburn, Yellowstone National Park. Image: Flickr/Zhenya Kuzina

The ambitious plan is not without controversy. Some environmental groups have opposed the National Park Service's (NPS) decision and process, accusing the agency of sacrificing wilderness for technology.

The debate has no clear right or wrong answer, and raises important questions about general accessibility on public lands.

"Pursuit of bigger bandwidth puts Yellowstone on a never-ending cellular treadmill. Yellowstone's custodians are doing more to service smartphones than to fix its crumbling infrastructure," Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), said in a statement emailed this week.

Maps from service providers AT&T and Verizon, according to PEER, indicate that coverage would bleed into Yellowstone's backcountry areas, which are cherished in part for their remoteness.

A spokesperson for Yellowstone National Park told Motherboard that the project will not actually expand the park's existing cellular footprint.

"With the exception of the new cellular tower near Canyon Village, this project is intended to improve the backhaul capacity of the existing cellular network," a spokesperson said in an email. "The project will not increase the network's footprint, but will improve service in the Canyon developed area (which is in the shadow of coverage from Mount Washburn). The new systems on the Mount Washburn Tower will not change the existing coverage area in the park."

Many parks in North America are reckoning with the same questions. Is better connectivity safer, more convenient, and necessary for visitors? In 2014, Parks Canada faced criticism for wanting to install wireless hotspots across the Canadian park system. Last year, five Democratic congressmen asked President Obama to boost wireless service in all 409 of America's national parks, especially those in rural areas. Their sentiment—that public safety and nearby communities would benefit from greater coverage—isn't one that's unanimously shared by the environmental community.

About a third of the park currently receives coverage from one tower, according to an AT&T Yellowstone map obtained by PEER through a Freedom of Information Act request. The group estimates this footprint will drastically increase once NPS completes its expansion, despite assurances that coverage will be kept "to a minimum" in less developed, backcountry areas.

A 2013 coverage map of Yellowstone National Park, obtained by PEER through a FOIA request. Image: PEER
Estimated map of future cell coverage based on AT&T, Verizon, and NPS maps. Image: PEER

Ruch told me he doesn't oppose servicing developed areas. But if Yellowstone's plan was "limited to developed areas, we wouldn't be having this conversation," saying that NPS is effectively "wiring the wild." Even the invisible threat of coverage is enough to tarnish the virtues of pristine backcountry for some.

Here's one opinion shared by Krista Langlois for High Country News:

I'm probably too young to be a good curmudgeon, but I nonetheless subscribe to Ed Abbey's view of wilderness: it doesn't need to be safe and accessible for everybody. Put ramps and roads and signs and cell phones into our cities, but please, leave them out of the backcountry. Sure they make it safer, but the element of risk is part of what defines the outdoors, and part of what draws me to it.

Whether or not parks even need better cell service is disputed among environmentalists. All sides have equally persuasive arguments, but the debate comes down to a few specific issues.

There are those who think that better coverage will lower the barrier of entry to experiencing national parks. You can't stop teens from staring at their phones, but maybe you can convince them that a weekend at Yellowstone doesn't necessarily mean going off the grid.

"Maybe someone Instagramming Old Faithful will inspire more people to visit and, in turn, generate more revenue and get more people to appreciate these places. [Though] I do wish what little money there is was better spent on repairing and replacing physical infrastructure," Hank Smith, a forester with the United States Forest Service, told me.

From a safety angle, the differing viewpoints are more complex. National parks have a lesser known legacy of sexual assault, both inside and outside of NPS. One woman I spoke to, Christina Toms, a senior environmental scientist at the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, said a lack of connectivity may actually be discouraging some women from venturing into backcountry.

"My work has taken me to some pretty isolated areas (including places where dead bodies have been found), and where I have cell service, I'm always grateful to have that connectivity in case things go south," Toms said in an email.

But some also worry that increased service could also lead to more "false alarm" calls from inexperienced visitors reporting non-emergencies. (And in many cases, satellite phones or GPS emergency beacons are the preferred method of backcountry emergency communications.)

"I'm sure some people will say that having their phone makes them 'safer' in the woods—but when everyone brings their phones to the backcountry, we will all be much less safe because the wilderness management agencies have limited resources and trouble distinguishing between actual emergencies and alarmed hikers who might not have prepared well for their trips," Jon Rosenfield, lead scientist for The Bay institute, a San Francisco Bay Area environmental nonprofit, told me.

It's important to note that backcountry, which is almost any rural, undeveloped area, is legally different from wilderness. The latter is governed by the Wilderness Act of 1964, which dictates how these areas can be used. PEER has accused NPS of violating other laws, however, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.

Ruch also believes the park has failed to produce a "before and after" comparison of cell coverage, calling the project a "corporate use of public lands and resources" by telecommunication companies.

In a statement below, however, Yellowstone National Park said it will "recover 100% of the administrative costs associated with processing these requests from the companies that submitted them," and that the park "is not paying for construction on these projects." It also said the park did not provide maps for three of the cell towers because the towers "do not provide cellular service to customers."

Yellowstone just recently closed its public comment period for the development of Mount Washburn. Meanwhile, Mount Rainier National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park are in various stages of cellular coverage planning.

"I don't really see an issue. If people are gonna spend time on their devices, they're gonna spend time on their devices," Smith said. "No one is forcing you to play Angry Birds while you're there."

UPDATE: June 23, 2017

A spokesperson for Yellowstone National Park has provided Motherboard with the following statement, regarding PEER's claims:

The park would like to make clear that this project will not expand the existing footprint of cell coverage out of developed areas of the park. With the exception of the new cellular tower near Canyon Village, this project is intended to improve the backhaul capacity of the existing cellular network. The project will not increase the network's footprint, but will improve service in the Canyon developed area (which is in the shadow of coverage from Mount Washburn). The new systems on the Mount Washburn Tower will not change the existing coverage area in the park.

To your question about PEER's statement that "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.

The reason the park did not provide coverage maps for 3 of the towers is that they are part of cellular companies' backhaul infrastructure for coverage in the park. In other words, they do not provide cellular service to customers. Those towers provide a link between existing cell towers and the rest of the nation's cellular/data infrastructure. We provided maps for the two towers that will provide cell coverage as part of this project.

To your question about the maintenance backlog, the park is not paying for construction on these projects. Cell service providers are. Yellowstone is going to recover 100% of the administrative costs associated with processing these requests from the companies that submitted them.

Speaking to PEER's claim that we're ignoring National Park Service protocols, Bret De Young, Yellowstone's Supervisory Telecommunications Specialist, said "We're not ignoring the plan. Every decision about wireless telecommunication is evaluated to make sure it is consistent with park planning documents." He stated that "All wireless communication proposals are evaluated by the wireless committee and the superintendent to decide whether they should be approved."