Call of the wild: Is it cellular?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As he hiked up a steep trail winding into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a few days ago, Don Barger reached into his pack, pulled out his cellphone - and turned it off. "The last thing you want to hear as you're rounding a bend out here is a cellphone ring or some guy talking to his broker or ordering pizza," he says. "But that's what's happening in our national parks these days."

At least 30 national parks now sport cellphone towers or other antennas, according to a newly released partial inventory by the National Park Service. This list, the first of its kind, is evidence that phone companies are targeting America's national parks for business.

The result, critics say, is a much-degraded visual experience when a tower sprouts on an otherwise pristine landscape - or a jarring aural annoyance when a cellphone rings deep in nature.

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In May, three cell towers proposed for a scenic road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park caused a public outcry. "It is one of the worst ideas we have heard," wrote United States Sen. Lamar Alexander and Rep. John Duncan Jr., both Tennessee Republicans. Within weeks of their letter to Fran Mainella, director of the National Park Service, the wireless company had dropped its plan.

Similarly, a new cellphone tower in full view of the famous geyser at Yellowstone National Park now raises the ire of some visitors. The park's "custodians have been unfaithful to Old Faithful," according to Frank Buono, a former National Park Service manager and board member of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The treasured view has been handled "with all the care of a strip mall."

The tower is an "incompatible structure" with a "very noticeable adverse effect," adds the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office.

The public onslaught has caused the park service to revisit its decision. A Yellowstone spokesman says tower height and appearance are under review and a moratorium has been placed on permits for new cellphone towers until a management plan is developed. But the towers have come in handy, park personnel say.

"Using cell service where we can allows better visitor safety services," says Al Nash, a park spokesman. While two-way radios work fine for park personnel, most emergency calls come from the public in developed areas of the park - and a growing number are by cellphone.

"We've been surprised that all of a sudden it became a lightning rod," adds Brian Goemmer, director of engineering and regulatory affairs for Western Wireless, the Bellevue, Wash., firm that owns the tower. It has served an important emergency function, especially for altitude- or heat-challenged visitors waiting to see Old Faithful blow off steam, he says.

Emergency use is an excuse, counters Mr. Barger, southeast regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit advocacy group. While he does carry a cellphone, Barger says he can't and won't depend on the device. Instead, he always tells a relative his itinerary and return time before hiking alone.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened the way for cell towers on federal lands, compelling federal managers to consider them. Critics say there's no national policy that outlines when they may be rejected.

But the National Park Service points to an array of national policies that govern siting of such towers. Still, the final decision lies with individual park managers, says Lee Dickinson, park service manager for special park uses who oversees permitting for telecommunications in 388 "park units," including the 58 that carry the "national park" designation.

The park service still doesn't know exactly how many towers have sprouted in national parks. The number could easily grow since the park service's inventory is not yet complete, several observers say.

Last week, PEER released documents showing that cell companies building towers in Yellowstone had supplied 70 phones and free minutes to park personnel. Also, it showed that $36,000 in annual lease fees for the towers was used to fund park-service salaries and other activities.

This income is an inducement for financially stretched park managers to permit cell towers, argues Jeff Ruch, PEER executive director. But Yellowstone's Mr. Nash says it was a tiny fraction of a $28 million budget and unlikely to be an inducement.

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