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Should you be able to call from the wild?

November 17, 2008|Nicholas Riccardi | Riccardi is a Times staff writer.

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Natural forces over millennia created the geysers, peaks and canyons that fascinate visitors here. But a newer feature is emerging on this stunning landscape -- cellphone towers.

One juts out from a hill behind Old Faithful; another crowns one of the park's most prominent peaks. Hikers occasionally stumble across cellphone equipment on trails around Mammoth Hot Springs. Visitors chatting on their phones have become as common in some areas as wandering bison.

After years of complaints from environmental groups about the proliferation of cellphone towers in national parks, officials here and across the country are asking: How wired do we want our wilderness?

"It is an issue that we have been grappling with," said Lee Dickinson, who coordinates cellular permits for the National Park Service. "There are some people who feel lost without an electronic connection, and there are other people who feel that cellphones shouldn't be in parks at all."

Seeking a position somewhere in between, the National Park Service has directed each of its 391 park areas to include a telecommunications proposal as part of any planning efforts.

Yellowstone officials issued a plan in September that proposes a modest expansion of cellphone use in developed areas and the installation of wireless Internet service in the park's hotels. Cellphone service would be kept out of the park's vast backcountry and off most of its roads.

But the proposed expansion has become a flashpoint in the debate over whether visitor convenience in national parks should trump the preservation of pristine nature.

And it has disappointed environmental groups who think any cellular service in the nation's oldest national park needs to be sharply limited.

"When people come to Yellowstone, it's one of the most special times in their lives," said Tim Stevens of the National Parks Conservation Assn. "One of the things that makes it that is the ability to hear the splash of a geyser . . . and not having that sound drowned out by somebody having a conversation with their family back in New Jersey."

Yellowstone officials say it's only logical to extend wireless service into already highly developed areas. Their plan calls for one additional tower by the historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel, and for improving service in the Canyon and Tower-Roosevelt areas.

It also would consolidate some of the telecommunications equipment that mars certain parts of the park, such as the mass of antennas that crowns Bunsen Peak, a popular hiking destination near Mammoth Hot Springs.

"Yellowstone is not one place," said Tom Ollitt, the park official who oversaw the plan. "It's three to four different experiences. The developed areas have a different experience than anywhere else in Yellowstone."

Park officials say they drew up the proposal after being approached in 2004 by cellular companies who wanted to build 27 towers and provide full coverage throughout the park. They acknowledge that cell signals aimed at developed sites can spill into nearby forests and lakes, but say they hope signs advising visitors to be courteous will cut noise pollution.

Other national parks have weighed how best to accommodate cellphone users without destroying the scenery. Activists hired a consultant to advise the park service on how to conceal a cellphone tower erected at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park in Virginia.

The few national parks or recreation areas that have drawn up telecommunications plans say that, like Yellowstone, they hope to limit structures to sites that are already paved.

Three cellular towers rise above developed areas at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and the park's plan calls for restricting any others to marinas or visitor centers. At Golden Gate National Recreation Area, officials say policy is to minimize cell signals in the park's rural areas while accommodating cellphone providers and tenants in facilities in San Francisco.

Cellphone towers were first allowed on federal land by the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Although the House Commerce Committee, which drew up the law, said that places such as Yellowstone would not be appropriate sites for cell towers, the act indicated that towers should only be rejected if they would conflict with the use of the land.

Yellowstone has long relied upon mounted antennas to support its microwave-based telephone system. Radio towers provide communications for rangers' devices and signals for commercial stations in neighboring towns. The first cell tower, built in 1999, rose 100 feet on a hillside south of Old Faithful. In response to complaints, the park lopped 20 feet off the tower in 2005. The new plan calls for moving it and concealing it in a stand of trees. There are five towers in the park.

Opponents to extending cell and wireless service at Yellowstone contend that the towers never should have been allowed in the first place. The signal they emit can spill into hiking trails away from developed areas, critics say.

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