Commercial Cell Service Clashes with National Park Policies and Values
Washington, DC — Calls to increase cellular and broadband coverage inside national parks are running up against policies to protect natural soundscapes, pristine vistas and serenity, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This month, these conflicts are reflected in plans to install a new 4-G capable cell tower right next to the largest tract of designated wilderness in North Dakota’s sole national park.
In a January 27, 2016 letter, five U.S. representatives asked President Obama to significantly increase federal funding for “wireline and wireless telecommunications and broadband services within our National Parks.” However, this request overlooks the basic fact that these are commercial services for paid subscribers; they are not amenities provided by the National Park Service (NPS) or supported with tax dollars. These wholly commercial platforms built inside our parks –
- Run afoul of NPS policies and directives to preserve natural soundscapes and vistas and to promote qualities such as solitude that enable visitors to commune with nature;
- Extend cell coverage into designated wilderness and backcountry. NPS officials are supposed to prevent this spillover but no park has asked a provider to limit coverage; and
- Cede management decisions about virtually every aspect (placement, design and visual impact) of facilities inside of a park to a private company.
“National Park superintendents have shown little ability or inclination to protect park resources and values from the demands of telecom companies,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that wireless companies pick locations, choose the signal penetration and even determine the height and configuration of facilities. “The 4G arrays now being installed are designed to enable music downloads, streaming videos and online games – activities that prevent rather than promote communing with nature.”
In the process, Park Service policies to minimize these impacts are routinely ignored. The latest cell tower proposal in North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park illustrates how virtually every NPS precept on design, spillover and even public notice is violated. Moreover, attempts by NPS Headquarters to coordinate wireless proposals to prevent signal interference are similarly ignored. Even when a park, such as Yellowstone, promises to mitigate adverse effects with measures such as cell-free zones and courtesy signage, there is little follow-through.
“National parks are under no legal obligation to provide visitors with commercial cell or broadband service – in fact, just the opposite when to do so requires sacrificing park values and resources,” added Ruch. “In this the National Park Service’s centennial year, a conversation about the role technology should play inside nature’s cathedrals is long overdue.”