Cell Phone Towers in U.S. Parks Dial Up Debate

Jennifer Cutraro
for National Geographic News
May 31, 2006
The jarring ring of a cell phone deep in the wilderness is many a nature lover's worst nightmare.

But it's a scenario that may become more common in the United States as wireless-communication companies expand their reach into national parks and other protected lands.

In March 2005 officials at Yellowstone National Park (see photos) met privately with several telecommunications companies to develop a future wireless plan for the park, including cell phone towers.

Yellowstone already has six towers in five locations, and wireless industry representatives are reportedly calling for more.

News of the meeting, released this month by the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), sparked concern about the closed-door nature of the talks.

"Yellowstone belongs to the American people, who ought to have some say before it is transformed into a giant cyber cafe," PEER executive director Jeff Ruch said in a press release.

"This is a commercial use of public land," Ruch later told National Geographic News in a telephone interview.

"The purpose [of the meeting] was to bring all the players—and the players apparently didn't include the public—together to decide how to divide up the pie."

But some experts note that, while the meetings themselves are controversial, they should come as no surprise.

Laura Loomis is senior director for government affairs with the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association in Washington, D.C.

She says at least 30 national parks—from Hawai'i Volcanoes to Montana's Glacier—have communications towers of some sort, and that number is expected to grow. (Related travel feature: national parks rated.)

"There is probably a park somewhere in the country that is getting a [new] telecommunications application every day," she said.

Safety First?

The trend places U.S. national parks at a crossroads. Expanded mobile-phone reach enhances public safety, proponents say, and is a service people expect.

Cell phones "are the most valuable safety tool we have in America today, because so many people have them and they work in so many situations," said John Walls, vice president of public affairs for the Wireless Industry Association.

"When used properly, that mobile device can and has been a lifesaver."

But dissenters say cell phones and other gadgets deep in the wild are an unnecessary intrusion of technology, jeopardizing the solitude many park visitors seek.

The only thing cell phones provide in the backcountry, critics say, is a false sense of security. Having wireless access more widely available may lead park visitors to take risks they wouldn't otherwise attempt.

"Cell phones give the illusion of safety," Loomis said.

"They make people think, If I have a cell phone, then someone can rescue me. Maybe I don't have to be quite as careful and take all the precautions I should have taken prior to coming out here with the understanding that I might not get rescued."

Lee Dickinson, special-uses manager of the U.S. National Park Service, agrees that better phone service may lull people into being less careful.

"[A cell phone] is a valuable backup, but people still need to be prepared," she said.

"For every story you hear about somebody who was saved because of their cell phone, there probably are stories about people who had to save themselves because their cell phones didn't work."

Technology in the Wilderness

Other wilderness buffs question whether cell phones have any place at all in national parks.

Kent Clement is a professor of outdoor recreation and leadership at Colorado Mountain College's Leadville campus and former executive director of the Wilderness Education Association.

"The whole idea of wilderness is that it is a place where technology doesn't invade," he said.

"If the authors of the Wilderness Act [of 1964] were alive today, they would say [cellular service] is directly in opposition of wilderness," he continued.

"When you look at something as technical as a computer or a phone, I think that flies in the face of what wilderness is intended to be."

Clement compares the expansion of cellular service today with the closing of the U.S. frontier in the late 1800s.

"It sent an outcry throughout the entire country when people realized there were no new areas to explore, no new peoples to discover," Clement said.

"This is similar to the time we're talking about now. It's something we need to look at in terms of loss—the loss of the wilderness character. Part of that has to do with cell phones and other technology creeping in."

Striking a Balance

But as consumer demand grows, cellular providers will likely continue their push into public lands.

Currently no industry-wide strategy for moving into national parks exists, but individual carriers are looking for ways to respond to what they say are customers' needs.

"To the extent that many of our customers visit national parks and want to be connected, we feel we have an obligation to do that," said Jim Gerace, vice president for corporate communications at Verizon Wireless based in Bedminster, New Jersey.

Some observers say that national parks and industry should work together to balance the preservation of wilderness and historic structures with land-based communications technology.

"I don't necessarily think the public should be denied the convenience of the phones," said Paul Rosa, executive director of the Harper's Ferry Conservancy in West Virginia.

"But it has to be balanced with the mission of the parks to preserve scenery."

Rosa consults with federal, state, and local governments as well as cellular-service providers on placement of towers and antennas in sensitive areas.

He believes the solution lies in a strong national policy on cell-tower placements in national parks.

Right now national parks leave decisions about the placement of cell towers up to individual park superintendents.

These officials are responsible for ensuring that the wireless expansion follows specific environmental and historic-preservation guidelines.

It's the lack of a national policy, Rosa says, that leads to problems like the controversial cell tower erected several years ago near Old Faithful in Yellowstone.

That tower protrudes well above the tree line and does not blend in with the surrounding landscape.

Still, he says, cellular service might not be as vital as its proponents make it out to be.

"It's important to remember that we're talking about dial tone, not oxygen. It's not essential to life to have that phone," he said.

"Yes, people can make that public safety argument about 911, but that's not the majority of call volume."

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