Yellowstone National Park officials, criticized for marring the landscape near Old Faithful geyser with a cellular phone tower, are quietly preparing a plan to cover any expansion of wireless towers, antennas and TV and radio services in the popular park.
The officials met last year with telecommunications companies that currently operate inside Yellowstone or want to do so, asking their suggestions, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Wireless companies that attended the meeting told The Associated Press that park officials asked them to identify potential sites for future wireless towers or antennas that would have the least impact on parkgoers.
Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said Monday the park, under pressure from companies seeking an edge to serve its 2.8 million annual visitors, is developing "an environmental assessment for wireless communications."
He said there has been no decision yet to expand existing wireless services and that current planning is designed simply to set the stage for such decisions in the future. "The goal is to give us an appropriate framework and a plan on which we can make solid decisions," he said.
The environmental group blames cell phones for a "death of solitude," with tourists gabbing on the phone in some of the nation's most revered nature spots. It alleges the park's meeting with industry on March 31, 2005, was illegal because there was no public notification.
"Yellowstone belongs to the American people who ought to have some say before it is transformed into a giant cybercafe," PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said.
Nash, the Yellowstone spokesman, said the public will get a chance to weigh in next month during a comment period before officials draft the plan and again when the draft circulates in late summer. A final decision is expected by year's end.
The released documents indicate the 2005 meeting participants, including Verizon Wireless, Qwest and five other communications companies, discussed several tower locations beyond the five that now provide limited park coverage.
"You had everything from people wanting to be given a construction permit in that meeting to people who were there to try and hear where Yellowstone was in their process," said Tony Hafla, president of Teton Communications, longtime provider of two-way radio service for the park. His company wants to enhance its service with more towers.
Park officials asked for an industry plan on selecting potential tower sites with the lowest impact on the park, Hafla said.
The Yellowstone plan will look at two-way radio, cellular communications, wireless Internet and research devices, Nash said.
There is one basic condition: If Yellowstone adds any new cell towers, they will be in "existing, disturbed, developed areas," where most people congregate and roads and power already exist, he said.
"The questions about backcountry and solitude are valuable and those are the kinds of things this plan will certainly delve into," he said.
Tourists don't always agree on the desirability of non-stop phone access, said Marysue Costello, executive director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce.
"There are those who think this is where you come and get away from everything. On the other hand, it is now the expectation of a majority of people. People come in here and are surprised that they can't get cell coverage."
Cecil Pegram, who bicycles in the park, said he occasionally calls from Yellowstone to check with his family in Billings, Mont., and finds current service acceptable.
"It's kind of nice to be someplace where my cell phone doesn't ring 24/7," he said. "Would I want to see it expanded? Not necessarily. It's like putting TVs in the rooms at Old Faithful (Inn). Why?"
Some participants at the park's 2005 meeting are skeptical they'll ever see more wireless in Yellowstone.
"They want to keep the park as it is and we just want to provide for our customers," said David Albertson, real estate manager for Ubiquitel PCS. "At the end, it seems like the missions are so different."
His company unsuccessfully sought to enter the Yellowstone market four years ago and still wants to under its new owner, Sprint.
"We just want to compete with what's in there," he said. His company pays roaming charges when its customers connect inside in the park and suffers a competitive disadvantage when local customers are attracted to companies that cover the park.
Verizon is seeking two sites in or around the park, spokesman Bob Kelley said.
Yellowstone's planning comes as the National Park Service works toward updating wireless policy systemwide, although most decisions still reside with individual parks, said Lee Dickinson, special park uses manager. One new regulation will state that companies must share towers whenever possible, she said.
Yellowstone drew criticism from environmentalists and historic preservation advocates for erecting a cellular tower in the Old Faithful region five years ago. Officials eventually lopped 20 feet off its 100-foot height after scorched trees toppled and left it more visible.
Documents obtained by PEER show Yellowstone's safety officer raised concerns about another set of wireless transmitters that were emitting elevated radio frequency radiation levels at a fire lookout on 10,243-foot Mount Washburn, a popular hiking destination.
"We are pushing the edge of safety up on Mt. Washburn," the officer, Brandon Gauthier, wrote in a March 22, 2005, e-mail. An attached report cited a 2004 survey by an Occupational Health and Safety Administration inspector, Bob Curtis.
Curtis said Monday that radiation in three spots on Mt. Washburn was twice the FCC standard for the general public, although it is still less than half the permissible limit for worker exposure. The two affected locations are accessible only to park employees, he said.
Someone would have to stand very close to the antennas for six minutes or climb the tower to be dosed with those levels, he said.
"If they stand back a couple feet they will be exposed less than they would from their cell phone," he said. He recommended installing warning signs and training employees to stay back. Those recommendations were carried out, Nash said.