This week, a complaint was filed with the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General, claiming that national parks throughout the country are allowing towers to spread too far into the wilderness areas without public involvement, without knowing who owns the towers, and without reaping financial benefits. Currently, 1,500 towers are peppered throughout the national parks and forests, some with co-location capabilities, reported Courthouse News Service.
In addition to the complaint filed with the government, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) are voicing their grievances about towers being built without adequate government or public oversight. PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said there’s a tendency of many national park superintendents to “ensure every square inch of their park has a strong 4G signal, thus creating conflict between connectivity and serenity in remote corners of wired parks.”
The law states, however, that allowing commercial telecommunications equipment in America’s backcountry forests and parks is perfectly legal. In fact, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 directed federal agencies to develop access to federal property – including parkland – for the siting of mobile telecommunications equipment.
Regarding the concern over lack of revenue when it comes to towers, there are benefits that come from the law. The Act offers a rate schedule where the federal government charges rent to carriers for placing their equipment on federal land. The rates are based on the population base and vary based on whether an area is considered rural (fewer than 50,000 people) or urban (1 million to 5 million people) and can range from $4,000 to $19,000 annually. Additionally, roads that lead to telecom infrastructure are paved and maintained by the county and federal government.
When it comes to what infrastructure is added in a park, Babette Anderson, national press officer for the U.S. Forest Service, said there is little central oversight of tower development in national parks and national forests. Each entity can make its own decisions and recommendations regarding carriers and infrastructure. She also noted that “communications use on National Forest System lands provide critical services, emergency services, homeland security, television and radio broadcast, and cellular communications.”
There are still towers being built, for example, six projects are underway in Yosemite National Park. And PEER has something to say about it. “Yosemite also claims to own four of the towers, putting it into the telecom business, yet it lets Verizon collect rent from companies co-locating on those towers,” PEER director Ruch said. “Not only is the public unaware, but Park Service headquarters is also in the dark and does not even track, let alone evaluate, cell towers springing up in parks across the country.”
In response, Jeffrey Olson, public affairs officer for the National Park Service said, “The National Park Service does not maintain a complete national database of parks that have cellular service, or which parks are considering applications from service providers or have equipment installation underway.”
November 3, 2017