“Grand” Digital Expansion Planned at National Park

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At least 26 of the national parks in the U.S. have existing commercial telecom towers, and many are expanding cellular infrastructure, some more discreetly than others, and it’s causing a divide between those seeking solitude and those who want to be connected everywhere they go. Now, with a plan for a vast digital expansion, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming has ignited controversy, according to E&E News.

Grand Teton plans to install new towers at nine sites, along with 62 miles of high-speed fiber-optic cable. 

Proponents say increasing digital connections will attract younger visitors plus boost safety and interest in visiting the park, while opponents say being “connected” in nature is a mistake.

“People should have a right to a no-WiFi zone — there should be places where we’re not in contact and reachable,” said Richard Louv. He’s a California author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

Park officials, though, see connectivity as a way to more quickly respond to emergencies. According to Tracy Swartout, the acting superintendent at Mount Rainier, there’s a “huge value” to having service in the park. “Our big thing is search-and-rescue, we have fatalities every single year in this park, and I’m hoping that we can have a positive impact on search-and-rescue and emergency services,” said Swartout.

At Mount Rainier, park officials will house new cellular equipment in an attic; Sequoia National Park in California plans to construct a 138-foot monopine beginning in 2020; at Death Valley, also in California, officials are considering a plan to put a new 60-foot wireless tower on Rogers Peak, reported E&E News.

Opponents are hailing the Grand Teton plan as a “mega-expansion” that would go too far in disturbing the natural landscape. “Grand Teton is a poster child for how park planning should not be done,” said Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Grand Teton officials defend their plan, which could see construction as early as this fall, saying their current equipment and services are inadequate and need to be updated. Park officials say they’re required by the Telecommunications Act to consider all applications from companies that want to install cellular equipment on park lands. Parks then work with companies on design and construction plans, which must obtain approval by an NPS regional director, reported E&E News.

“Our plan is a holistic and comprehensive approach to meet the park’s telecommunications needs for the future while protecting the park’s resources and responding to visitor expectations,” said Grand Teton spokeswoman Denise Germann. Swartout added that the park, “can be a dangerous place” and that many visitors are not prepared for what they may experience: “If you fall down and break your leg and you’re by yourself and have a device in your pocket, you may not be able to text and get emergency support, and that could put your life in danger. So this provides a bit of a safety net for them.”

July 2, 2019

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