Grand Teton examines plan to improve cell service
March 14, 2019
JACKSON — Where a phone call today is an iffy proposition, visitors and residents of Grand Teton National Park may soon have all their smartphones’ capabilities at their fingertips.
A proposal being driven by telecommunications companies, and drawing the ire of one National Park Service watchdog group, would add nine new cell towers and bury 63 miles of high-speed fiber-optic cable between Moose and Flagg Ranch. Today, there are just two towers — at Jackson Hole Airport and Signal Mountain — and notoriously spotty signals, especially during the peak of the summer tourism boom when tens of thousands of folks compete for bandwidth.
“The current equipment and services that we’ve got are outdated,” Teton park spokeswoman Denise German said in a statement. “They’re inadequate, and they don’t serve us well, nor do they serve park visitors or our partners well.”
The new cell towers would go in at Flagg Ranch, Colter Bay, Jackson Lake Lodge, Signal Mountain, North Jenny Lake, South Jenny Lake, Beaver Creek, Moose and Kelly. The fiber-optic line — which the towers would tie into — would branch off the main drag at those locations and also the University of Wyoming’s AMK Ranch research center, planning maps show.
Detractors of lining Teton park with cell towers exist, especially the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which sued last spring over alleged violations of the Freedom of Information Act relating to a 2017 request for a trove of withheld documents and correspondence with wireless companies. In “desultory fashion,” the park released the documents and the lawsuit was dropped, but outgoing PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch is not pleased with what’s on the drawing board.
“We think it’s the biggest single expansion of cell tower infrastructure in a national park in history,” Ruch said. “They may say this isn’t meant to order pizza, buy stock and hunt Pokemon in the darkest parts of Grand Teton’s backcountry, but it may.”
In Ruch’s view, directing cell signals into Teton Range backcountry haunts without forethought is one indication of the deterioration of Park Service planning.
“Most of the national parks don’t have statutorily required management plans,” Ruch said. “Almost none have carrying capacities, which are also required by law.”
There are no Park Service policies that outright ban wiring the backcountry, he said, but the action runs counter to broader directives and goals like conserving soundscapes and protecting park values and the visitor experience. Grand Teton’s planning chief, Daniel Noon, confirmed that the park is not planning to ask telecom companies to direct signals away from the backcountry, which includes 190 square miles of recommended wilderness.
“Right now, the signals are primarily for the frontcountry areas,” he said. “There might be some additional bleed [into the backcountry], but that’s not the intent.”
A planning document released Tuesday does not include maps predicting where cell service would become available in the future because, Noon said, the park did not want to create inaccurate expectations.
Ruch contended the omission was noncompliant: “Their own rules require they display coverage maps,” he said.
Best-case scenario, Park Service officials will sign off on a decision OK’ing the plan within months, and construction of the towers and lines will begin in late summer or early fall, wrapping up next year, Noon said.
A New Jersey outfit named Diamond Communications has been tapped to build the infrastructure, which will be leased to telecom companies like Verizon and Sprint. Repeated, unsolicited applications from the cell service providers going back years were the impetus for the plan, Noon said.
“Under the Telecommunications Act, when an applicant is interested, we’re required by law to look it over, which is what we’re doing here,” Noon said.
In the meantime, the public has the opportunity to weigh in on the plan. Comments are due by April 10.
Through past public processes, PEER has successfully lobbied to confine cell signals to frontcountry areas in national parks like Theodore Roosevelt and Mount Rainier, but Ruch was not upbeat about swaying decision-making in Grand Teton. The environmental assessment reads like a “done deal,” he said, and proposes exactly what the cell companies wanted, according to documents he obtained through FOIA.
“This is a commercial use of a national park to provide services to paid subscribers,” Ruch said. “This isn’t a public service, and they’re not required to say yes, but they appear to have decided yes six or seven years ago.”