Cell­phones spill into Yel­low­stone’s wilds de­spite park plan

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Matthew Brown The As­so­ci­ated Press

Ad­ven­ture seek­ers en­counter un­tamed wilder­ness when they en­ter the back­coun­try of Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park. Howl­ing wolves. Deadly griz­zly bears. Steam-spew­ing gey­sers as seen nowhere else on earth.

A refuge from ring­ing cell­phones? Not so much any­more.

In the pop­u­lar­ity con­test be­tween Yel­low­stone’s nat­u­ral won­ders and on-de­mand phone ser­vice, park ad­min­is­tra­tors ap­pear to have lost ground on a 2009 pledge to min­i­mize cell­phone ac­cess in back­coun­try ar­eas.

Sig­nal cov­er­age maps for two of Yel­low­stone’s five cell­phone tow­ers show calls can now be re­ceived in large swaths of Yel­low­stone’s in­te­rior, such as the pic­turesque La­mar Val­ley and other ar­eas un­til just re­cently out of reach.

The maps were ob­tained by a Washington, DC-based ad­vo­cacy group, Pub­lic Em­ploy­ees for En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­spon­si­bil­ity (PEER), which has for years fought against new telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in­fras­truc­ture in the first na­tional park in the U.S.

Their re­lease comes just a week af­ter law­mak­ers in the U.S. House in­tro­duced a bill that would al­low even more cell­phone tow­ers and sim­i­lar struc­tures on pub­lic lands across the na­tion.

Ken Si­nay, who op­er­ates the Yel­low­stone Sa­fari tour com­pany and has been run­ning na­ture tours in the park’s back­coun­try for two decades, said phone sig­nals be­came far more preva­lent in many parts of the park over the past sev­eral years.

His cus­tomers typ­i­cally ar­rive to get away from mod­ern-day dis­trac­tions. But some are un­able to re­sist the lure of tak­ing busi­ness calls or call­ing home to check on their dogs.

“It’s a real drag at Artists Point,” Si­nay said, re­fer­ring to a fa­mous over­look near Yel­low­stone Falls. “While peo­ple are try­ing to en­joy them­selves some­body’s on their phone wav­ing their hands and ges­tur­ing and walk­ing around in a cir­cle.”

Yel­low­stone tech­nol­ogy chief Bret De Young ac­knowl­edged the oc­cur­rence of “spillover” cell­phone sig­nals into back­coun­try ar­eas, but sug­gested the cov­er­age maps — re­leased by the park to Ruch’s group un­der a pub­lic records re­quest — ex­ag­ger­ated the qual­ity of cov­er­age in parts of the park.

In 2009, Yel­low­stone is­sued a wire­less and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions man­age­ment plan that said cell­phone cov­er­age “would not be pro­moted or avail­able along park roads out­side de­vel­oped ar­eas, or pro­moted or avail­able in any of the back­coun­try.”

“No cell­phone ser­vice will be al­lowed in the vast ma­jor­ity of Yel­low­stone,” park of­fi­cials said in a state­ment is­sued when the plan was adopted.

PEER ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Jeff Ruch said the park had failed to meet those goals and in­stead ceded its telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­gram to com­pa­nies that wanted to of­fer blan­ket cov­er­age.

“The abil­ity to dis­con­nect, the seren­ity value of that, is a park re­source that they’ve given away with­out a thought,” Ruch said.

De Young said it is not the in­tent to cover back­coun­try ar­eas, and the park is tak­ing steps to limit cell ser­vice as much as pos­si­ble to de­vel­oped ar­eas.

That’s be­ing done with the in­stal­la­tion of new an­ten­nas that di­rect sig­nals more pre­cisely so cell­phone ser­vices are lim­ited mainly to the small com­mu­ni­ties and camp­grounds in the park.

Two of the park’s five cell­phone tow­ers now use those spe­cially aimed an­ten­nas, and De Young said a third is due to be con­verted this fall.

A cell­phone cov­er­age map pro­vided by the park shows that the sig­nals ex­tend be­yond tar­geted ar­eas but lose sig­nal strength as the dis­tance from the com­mu­ni­ties and camp­grounds in­creases.

“This will al­low the ser­vice providers to keep up with new phone tech­nol­ogy while lim­it­ing un­in­ten­tional cov­er­age ar­eas,” De Young said.

The House leg­is­la­tion in­tro­duced last week seeks to en­cour­age even greater cel­lu­lar and broad­band cov­er­age within na­tional parks and other pub­lic lands. The mea­sure from Cal­i­for­nia U.S. Rep. Jared Huff­man is known as the Pub­lic Lands Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Act.

It would im­pose rental fees on telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies with cell tow­ers or other in­fras­truc­ture on pub­lic lands. Money raised would be used by the U.S. In­te­rior and Agri­cul­ture De­part­ments to ob­tain ad­di­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tion sites and take other steps to fos­ter greater cov­er­age.

Na­tional Park Ser­vice spokesman Jeremy Bar­num said the agency could not pro­vide an es­ti­mate of the num­ber of cell tow­ers in na­tional parks.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this file photo, a herd of bi­son grazes in the La­mar Val­ley of Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park in Wy­oming. Park ad­min­is­tra­tors ap­pear to have lost ground on a 2009 pledge to min­i­mize cell­phone ac­cess in back­coun­try ar­eas. Sig­nal cov­er­age maps for two of Yel­low­stone’s five cell­phone tow­ers show calls can now be re­ceived in large swaths of the park’s in­te­rior such as the pic­turesque La­mar Val­ley. The maps were ob­tained by a Washington, DCbased ad­vo­cacy group, Pub­lic Em­ploy­ees for En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­spon­si­bil­ity.

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