Wi-Fi in the Wilderness

The National Park Service is racing to expand cellphone service at parks nationwide. Do we really want a connected wild?

By Christopher Ketcham

June 25, 2020

Wi-Fi in the Wilderness

Illustrations by Eugenia Loli

In 2018, I went on a solo backpacking trip into the wild stone labyrinth of the Needles district in Canyonlands National Park. After three days among the canyons and hoodoos, happily not seeing another person, I crested a rise of slickrock overlooking the stunning basin-and-mesa country that reaches from Utah's La Sal Mountains to the Abajo range. I had an iPhone with me, which I was using as a camera, and on a lark I decided to see if I could catch a signal. Sure enough, I could.

Like one of Pavlov's dogs, I descended into the behavior that the sight and sound of my device always calls forth. Dutifully, I checked email, the weather, the headlines. When a flood of texts poured in, I felt a surge of satisfaction—that dopamine thrill of virtual connection. I immediately regretted having turned on the phone. There was something idiotic in my tinkering with an electronic toy when all about me was a beauty and immensity that dwarfed the merely human. Three days of sweet calm and mental quiet faded in the light of the screen and, instantly, I was back in the frenetic informational overload we call civilization.

I vowed to never again bring my phone on a backpacking trip. The temptation to look for a signal is too great, and the psychological cost—the loss of serenity and a sense of presence—is, for me, too high.

Wi-Fi in the Wilderness

The National Park Service has a different attitude toward cellular technology: The agency has opted to embrace expanded connectivity as an important visitor amenity. The Park Service is in the midst of a sweeping build-out of new cellphone and wireless sites across many of the 62 national parks—everything from minuscule antennae affixed to existing buildings to hundred-foot towers to wi-fi hubs. Grand Teton National Park is in the process of permitting the largest cell-site expansion in NPS history, with nine new wireless communication sites slated for construction—on top of the two already in place—and plans to install 60 miles of fiber-optic cable to supply the needed bandwidth. Earlier this year, Glacier National Park announced its intention to build at least four new towers, while Grand Canyon may have as many as five sprouting from the South and North Rims. At Sequoia National Park, officials are proceeding with the construction of a 138-foot tower intended to resemble a tree. New towers are in the offing at Olympic and Bryce Canyon as well as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Already, visitors are able to get five bars in the developed areas of our oldest park, Yellowstone, and can pick up "spillover signals" across much of the 3,500-square-mile park's wild backcountry.

Most conservation organizations (including, for the record, the Sierra Club) have had nothing critical to say about this industrial expansion into our most prized public lands. But a few watchdog groups—along with some current and former NPS staffers—warn that the spread of telecom connectivity threatens the parks' wild character and the opportunities for solitude and retreat that make the parks valuable in the first place.

The most vocal and dogged opponent of the cellular build-out is Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which over the past decade has barraged the Park Service with complaints, Freedom of Information Act requests, and, when ignored, FOIA lawsuits regarding its cell-siting decisions. The group has documented the agency's troubling pattern of ignoring the federal laws—specifically the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act—designed to protect public lands from overdevelopment. According to PEER, the Park Service's telecom policy is "myopic and lawless" and a threat to "scenery," "soundscapes," and what the group calls "serenity values."

Jeff Ruch, who was the executive director of PEER for more than 20 years and now oversees its investigations in the American West, is the group's point person on the build-out. Ruch charges that park policy has "betrayed the public interest" by aiding and abetting the telecom behemoths—Verizon, AT&T, and Qwest, among others—as they extend their reach into wild places in the interest of boosting their customers' time on the networks. "These plans are by the telecoms, for the telecoms, of the telecoms," Ruch told me. "A national park is supposed to facilitate the public's ability to enjoy the natural world and be able to escape the electronic tendrils of civilization. To commune with nature. To unplug. The Park Service is doing the very opposite. It's wiring the wilderness."

SINCE ITS FOUNDING IN 1916, the National Park Service has been caught between two seemingly conflicting mandates: to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life" in the parks and "to provide for the enjoyment of the same" for as much of the public as possible, primarily through recreation. For more than a century, the Park Service, despite some dissent in its ranks, has rarely questioned whether providing the infrastructure for maximized recreation threatens conservation. One of the agency's earliest critics, Robert Sterling Yard, who was also among the first executives of the NPS, wrote in 1925 that the park system's "shining purpose [was] hidden behind its official recreational promotion." Yard argued that the national park system "must be saved . . . from those [who] would reduce it to the general level of the country's playgrounds."

The new technology will, supposedly, attract the smartphone generation and at the same time allow visitors to more easily summon help after falling off a ledge while taking a selfie.

Historically, the Park Service has barreled ahead with initiatives to attract ever more visitors. Beginning in the 1920s, the agency embarked on a massive road-building program to draw in the motoring public and then turned to private concessionaires for the construction and operation of commercial amenities like hotels, restaurants, and trinket shops. The automobile-centered development model accelerated in the 1950s and '60s as the number of park visitors boomed. The expansion of cell and wi-fi service today is part of this historical continuum and represents the Park Service's latest gambit to maintain its cultural relevancy, especially in the digital age.

Some stalwart public lands champions in Congress have encouraged the expansion of telecom connectivity in the parks. In 2016, a group of Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to the Obama administration asking for a "significant funding increase" for wireless and broadband development. The letter, whose notable signatories included the current chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Raúl Grijalva, contended that "improved connectivity will help to make our parks accessible and engaging to changing park visitor demographics." Connectivity would "also support the Park Service's long-term goals of improving public safety, providing greater interpretive services, and meeting the needs of the visiting public."

The justifications in the Grijalva letter are the same ones the National Park Service offered during the Obama administration and the same ones it continues to trumpet, with seamless consistency, under the Trump administration. The new technology will, supposedly, attract the smartphone generation and at the same time allow visitors to more easily summon help after, say, falling off a ledge while taking a selfie (a not-uncommon occurrence). "The National Park Service recognizes the benefit of increased and reliable connectivity," agency spokesperson Cynthia Hernandez told me in a statement. Better cell service, she added, is especially important for public safety.

Jon Jarvis, who served as the agency director for eight years under President Barack Obama, repeatedly stressed the safety angle. But Jarvis also admitted that cell towers, as he explained to E&E News in 2015, are "intrusive in most places and probably inappropriate in a lot of national parks." Jarvis said that he was a proponent of more service in developed areas only—that is, at visitor centers, in campgrounds, and along roads. "I'm not suggesting—nor do I think it's appropriate—that you have wireless connectivity on the Colorado River as you go down the Grand Canyon," he told E&E News. "But if you're on the South Rim and you're sitting on the deck of the El Tovar [Hotel], then I think it's perfectly appropriate that you might have wireless connectivity or at least be able to access your Facebook site and upload your photos."

OPPONENTS OF THE TELECOM build-out look askance at these arguments. "The safety claim, for example, is just a canard," PEER's Ruch told me, emphasizing that his organization isn't opposed to cell service around visitor centers and hotels. "The Park Service has said over and over that it wants cell coverage only for developed areas and says it has no intention of cell signals reaching into the backcountry"—where, presumably, connectivity is most needed for public safety. It's in the backcountry, after all, that people tend to get into trouble.

PEER also questions whether Americans really want connectivity in the parks. There is little evidence to support the argument that park visitors—including younger ones—expect to get a crystal clear signal while enjoying the outdoors. "There are no polls, no surveys by the NPS of its visitors," said Frank Buono, a retired Park Service employee who was the chief instructor at the NPS National Academy on issues of law and policy and is now a PEER board member. "It is just taken as an assumption." When I asked the Park Service to provide documentation about visitors' attitudes toward connectivity, the agency failed to respond.

"The Park Service states that cell-tower expansion will help visitors find new ways to engage with the national park. They only become more disconnected from the natural world."

In the few instances in which the NPS has solicited public comments on cell-site and other connectivity proposals, the public has vociferously opposed the plans. In 2009, Yellowstone National Park published an environmental assessment for a plan to provide cell service at Yellowstone Lake, add wi-fi to historic structures across the park, and expand the number of antennae on the park's highest peak, Mt. Washburn. Of the 2,055 comments park managers received on the proposal, the majority—the document did not specify an exact number—"favored limiting wireless communications to park developed areas." The majority of commenters specifically "opposed cellular service being added at [Yellowstone] Lake, favored reducing or consolidating unneeded and/or visually obtrusive wireless infrastructure, favored protecting visual resources, opposed adding wi-fi to historic lobbies, opposed adding webcams to the backcountry." This same majority felt that "cellphones created noise pollution, thus reducing solitude." Some commenters "objected to any wireless coverage for visitor convenience." The report added that only "[a] few felt that cell service within the park should be expanded."

Mount Rainier National Park's April 2018 assessment for a proposed tower in its spectacular Paradise area received 893 comments, more than 60 percent of which were in opposition. "Comments opposed . . . emphasized the protection of national parks and wildernesses from electronic signals," the report said. Similarly, when Death Valley in 2019 issued an environmental assessment for a new tower planned for 10,000-foot Rogers Peak, it drew what the service described as "emotional public comments." "Some people"—again the Park Service did not provide specific numbers—"objected to any increase in cellular coverage, expressing a desire to keep the wilderness free of cellular service or to have the park be a place to 'get off the grid.'"

Many cell-antenna and tower-siting decisions in parks, however, have not been open to public comment. The Park Service has often opted out of the rigorous process of environmental analysis normally required under the National Environmental Policy Act by issuing what are called "categorical exclusions" for cell sites. A categorical exclusion is allowed if park officials determine a finding of "no significant impact" from any particular development proposal. Under NEPA, a categorical exclusion voids the need for either an environmental assessment or the more difficult and expensive undertaking of an environmental impact statement. It also voids the need to solicit public comments otherwise mandated under NEPA.

Consider the routine use of categorical exclusions at Yellowstone National Park. In 2018 alone, categorical exclusions were issued to approve a three-sided wraparound tower on Mt. Washburn (despite considerable public opposition), a new cell tower at Canyon Village, and a new tower at Yellowstone Lake (also despite public opposition). Yellowstone managers that year issued categorical exclusions that effectively eliminated all previous wi-fi restrictions for historic buildings. The park managers never gave the public an opportunity to comment on those changes in wi-fi policy. Similarly, officials at Yosemite National Park have approved at least six cellular sites, yet failed to apprise the public of the plans so as to elicit timely public comment.

This is all part of a pattern, Buono said. Compliance with NEPA "has been spotty at best," and the Park Service has repeatedly violated the consultative process under the National Historic Preservation Act in ways that he calls "shoddy and dishonest." According to Buono, the NPS has routinely allowed telecom corporations to site facilities in parks rent-free and sometimes without even a legal right-of-way. Some parks, including Yellowstone, have issued rights-of-way and retained the rental fees in the park budget rather than depositing them in the US Treasury, as required by law.

The Park Service's regulatory oversight of the telecom industry is so lax that the agency doesn't even know how many cell sites exist on its lands. When I asked the NPS for an inventory of all cell sites in the park system, I was told that the agency doesn't have the data; it hasn't bothered to compile it, despite having received numerous Freedom of Information Act requests from PEER since 2004 about the subject.

In July 2019, the Interior Department's inspector general found that the NPS had failed miserably at managing permits for cell facilities. Of 133 inventoried commercial cellular facilities in the parks system, 68 required "research to determine whether permits needed to be issued" or "to determine whether renewals were needed." The Park Service also "could not provide evidence that the required National Environmental Policy Act determination was performed consistently for commercial [right-of-way] permits. . . . Without a complete inventory, its [the NPS's] Washington Support Office cannot be sure that parks are in compliance with NPS policy and that federal land is protected."

THEN THERE IS THE QUESTION of how connectivity squares, if at all, with the intentions of the Wilderness Act. Under law and by long-standing policy, the National Park Service manages the wildlands of the backcountry as wilderness, regardless of whether those areas enjoy wilderness designation by Congress or are simply recommended for or eligible for wilderness protection. Many of the parks now considering or approving new cell sites are wilderness parks. Mount Rainier National Park is 97 percent designated wilderness, yet the park has approved a cellular facility that, according to the Park Service's own reporting, will spill signals deep into the wilderness. Yosemite is 95 percent wilderness, Grand Teton 46 percent wilderness. Many of these wilderness areas are already experiencing some degree of cell-signal spillover.

As Steve Mishkin, an environmental attorney and PEER volunteer put it to me, “the NPS is trashing the Wilderness Act every time it approves a cell tower whose signals reach into the backcountry.” The Park Service itself has admitted, in commentary on the digital rollout in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, that "access to cell service and cellphone use in the Sequoia–Kings Canyon wilderness may cause noise such as ringtones, music, and chatter, impacting wilderness character and altering the wilderness experience."

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain," and where the land retains "its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions." Wilderness areas "have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable," and are places that offer "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation."

Land of primeval character? The imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable? Outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation? Once there's a cell signal, all that goes out the window. "Spillover into the backcountry is offensive," Howie Wolke, a longtime board member of the nonprofit Wilderness Watch, told me. "If you want to be connected, go to Disneyland. One of the important values of wilderness is the feeling of remoteness one gets in a wild and natural environment."

The motivation of the telecom corporations to expand their reach deeper into the national parks is, of course, to have more customers connected all the time—wherever they are, in wilderness or in the front country—because it's profitable to have people connected to the system. But the Park Service's legal obligation is to protect the "primeval character" of wilderness—and the agency simply cannot do that if everyone carrying a smartphone is enabled for such wilderness-incompatible activities as watching a live sporting event, making stock trades, or playing video games.

The Wilderness Act stipulates, "There shall be no commercial enterprise . . . within any wilderness area designated by this Act." Does a cellular company need to have a physical presence within designated wilderness to be conducting a commercial enterprise there? The law isn't clear. A possible analogue is aviation; pilots are required to maintain an altitude of at least 2,000 feet when flying over wilderness. This is an example of an activity that doesn't have a permanent physical presence in wilderness yet still has restrictions placed on it because the activity can have an impact on the wilderness experience.

Backcountry rangers with the Park Service whom I have spoken with share Wolke's acid opinion on the cell-signal invasion. Most of the rangers wouldn't go on the record for fear of compromising their jobs, but one who did speak freely is Crystal Muzik, a 37-year-old seasonal ranger in southern Utah who has been with the NPS for 11 years. "With more connectivity, I envision the worst," Muzik told me. "Perhaps a visitor brings their tablet on a five-day backpacking trip and finds themselves checking their work emails. They are distracted and have completely lost the idea of why they came out into nature in the first place. The Park Service states that cell-tower expansion will help visitors find new ways to engage with the national park. They only become more disconnected from the natural world."

AFTER HE LEFT THE PARK SERVICE, Robert Sterling Yard visited Yosemite Valley in 1926 and declared it "lost" to overdevelopment, primarily from road building to accommodate ever-increasing motorized tourism. Too much commercial activity had degraded the place into "an Asbury Park of the altitudes . . . sacrificed on the altar of Gasoline." Easy access with machines, coupled with the Park Service's embrace of the "business of scenery," had eroded the shining purpose of Yosemite, which was the "offering [of] inspiration, horizons, and perspectives, elevation of the spirit, and education." But the Park Service had ceased to listen to Yard—considered him, in fact, a pariah—because he had concluded that the "danger to the national parks" issued from "industrial companies that want to use the parks for profit."

The danger remains the same today; it's just taken a different form. Call it "digital roading"—the infiltration of our wildest landscapes by the telecom profiteers. In the long run, digital roading may be a far greater threat to the park experience than automobiles have been. Cars transport visitors physically into the parks, where they are free to explore on foot (and in recent years, some parks have placed restraints on automotive access to force people out of their machines as much as possible). A wireless connection spreads everywhere, beyond the roads; the connection serves to transport people out of the parks and into the grip of a screen machine.

PEER's Jeff Ruch sees the connectivity controversy as part of a loss of direction at the agency, a misdirection that ties into a misunderstanding of the agency's mandate as outlined in the Organic Act of 1916. Even with park visitation at record numbers, the Park Service thinks it needs to attract still more people by hosting digital connectivity. But there's a problem with that logic, Ruch argues. Even if there were a proven public demand for connectivity, nothing in the Organic Act states that the Park Service would be obliged to provide it, just as it would not be obliged to provide carousels, zip lines, petting zoos, or water rides if the public demanded those.

For nearly a century, the Park Service allowed a hotelier to light giant bonfires above Yosemite Valley almost every summer night and push the embers off a cliff for a celebrated "firefall." Rangers at Yellowstone used to feed the bears every summer afternoon. The public loved the firefall and the bear baiting, but the Park Service eventually stopped those activities because they were deemed incompatible with the agency's mandate to conserve the "natural objects . . . [and] wild life" of the parks. Perhaps, years hence, today's craze for connectivity will be viewed similarly.

The parks were never intended to meet the expectations of every visitor. We are told again and again that if the Park Service fails to meet visitor expectations, the public will stop coming and the national parks will lose popular, and congressional, support. To the contrary, if the Park Service fails to protect the preservation values at the heart of its mission—and in the process fails to serve those visitors who seek the beauty and complexity of life on Earth untrammeled by industrial civilization—the parks will be no different than surrounding landscapes. And thereby they will lose all their special meaning.

This article appeared in the July/August 2020 edition with the headline "Wiring the Wilderness."

This article has been updated since publication. 

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